Premiered at the London Film Festival in October, 2014, Testament of Youth finally arrived to our city here in Western Canada in late August, and only for a week or so. It came quietly to our age-old indie theatre, nearly slipped by without my noticing it; if so, that would have been a loss for me.
I admit I haven’t read Vera Brittain’s acclaimed, 600 plus page memoir. I admit too that before watching Downton Abbey Seasons 1 and 2, the subject of WWI, its direct hits and collateral damages, had not piqued my interest that much. Now, even saying ‘piqued my interest’ trivializes the devastation – as this film has so poignantly shown us – the tragic loss of a generation of youth.
The beginning of the film, which is elegantly shot, shows us succinctly Vera Brittain’s (Alicia Vikander) well-to-do family. Vera and her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) are endearingly close. While their intention is good, their parents (Dominic West, Emily Watson) are protective and traditional: Edward has the chance to go to Oxford, Vera is meant for marriage. On this issue, Vera protests and argues with her father; eventually, her determination and intellectual vigour win through. A dream comes true when Vera enters the women’s Somerville College Oxford to study English Literature.
From her brother, Vera gets to know a few good Oxford men: Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan), Geoffrey Thurlow (Jonathan Bailey), and Roland Leighton (Kit Harington). Roland subsequently wins her heart with his sensitive, poetic inclination; the two soon are engaged. The winds of war blow callous and indiscriminate. As Britain is drawn into the fight, all these young men heed the call to enlist. Vera too decides to forsake her hard-earned Oxford education to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment as a nurse.
The saddest and most ironic notion about WWI is perhaps that it was first thought to be a fast and triumphal war. Surely, Britain came out a victor, but not before ringing up a horrific number of casualties and sending back home – for those fortunate enough – a permanently damaged generation. As the military struggle wained through four long years, Vera would ultimately lose all who are dearest to her: her brother Edward, her fiancé Roland, and their two close friends Victor and Geoffrey. After the war, Vera goes back to Oxford. Later, a disillusioned Vera becomes a vocal pacifist and an advocate of women’s rights.
This is British director James Kent’s full feature debut after years of helming TV productions. His effort is conscientious and serious, and for that, I’d much appreciated. The film is beautifully shot and carefully crafted. The camera work, while giving us a traditional look, is agile and stylish; the editing succinct. I have not read the memoir so cannot offer comparison, but judging the film on its own, the screenplay is well written and the overall production, a captivating execution.
Kent has an excellent cast to work with, and that adds to the quality of the production. Vera Brittain is well portrayed by the nowadays ubiquitous, Swiss actress Alicia Vikander. She is in some very diverse roles, from Kitty in Anna Karenina (2012) to an AI robot in Ex Mechina (2015), to the witty British agent Gaby in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), and in several highly anticipated upcoming films.
Vikander is versatile, and her best quality is probably the intelligent and unsentimental mastery of her character. Here, she is a living testament to the devastation of war. For a witness to testify effectively, the most important element has to be clarity and not be overcome by emotions. She has delivered her message poignantly.
Other actors are just as competent in their roles, and a pleasure to watch, despite all their tragic end. Aaron Egerton as Edward, what a change from the street punk under Colin Firth’s mentoring in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Kit Harington’s (Game of Throne fame) performance is effective, particularly in a scene where he comes home the first time from the trenches, a changed man. Veteran actors Dominic West and Emily Watson are excellent supports, especially West as the father torn by grief and ambivalence.
I have seen several WWI and II films in recent years: Sarah’s Key, The Book Thief, The Monuments Men, Suite Française, I have to place Testament of Youth above all of them. Visceral but not sentimental, the film communicates with painful clarity the devastation of war, the traumatic experiences in the trenches, and the cold, hard fact of a testimonial: the loss of a generation.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
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