Testament of Youth: Film Review
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, Dominic West, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson
Director: James Kent
The spectre and horrors of the first World War hang heavy in this adaptation of the iconic memoir of Vera Brittain which opens in time for ANZAC commemorations.
A powerful and tenacious Alicia Vikander stars as Brittain, who in the months leading to the outbreak of war, is waging her own fight to be allowed to sit the Oxford entrance exam against the wishes of her father.
Orbiting her quest for intellectual stimulation are her brother Edward (Kingsman: The Secret Service star Egerton), long time crush Victor (Merlin star Colin Morgan) and potential love interest, sensitive Roland (Game of Thrones star Kit Harrington aka Jon Snow).
As Brittain forms a relationship with Roland through a shared love of poetry across the miles, war breaks out and the effect on a generation is nothing short of seismic. But through it all, Brittain fights for her place in the world, her right to be on the battlefields and her grief at the terrible losses she suffers.
Testament Of Youth is a strong, poignant piece that shirks none of the responsibility of showing the true horrors of war on the young; stiff British upper lips quiver in the face of conscription and Kent does a sensitive job of using small moments to convey the naievete and horror in equal measure.
A tremendous Vikander outshines most on screen, imbuing her Battle of Brittain with an emotional depth and resonance from the outset, even if the script threatens to sideline such strengths. While the initial petulance and settling of Brittain into a Blue Stocking, looking for nothing more in life than a husband seems to clash with her headstrong desire to be educated and yet also be one of the boys, sections which turn her into a hopeful romantic rankle, seemingly at odds with all that's gone before and threatening to turn our heroine into a simpering girl whose only purpose in life is to conform to the social mores.
Those feelings are only compounded by the amount of screen time given to the relationship with a particularly insipid and wet Harrington as Roland, which threatens to derail the whole thing, rather than providing the strong emotional touchstone needed for the film.
In fact, Testament of Youth is a much better piece when it heads to the fields of France and leaves the aloof and dreary romance behind, and stops desperately from trying to make you connect to the star crossed lovers.
The true appalling consequences of war and human nature are laid bare in the warzone that Brittain experienced first hand emotionally and personally. It's here the cameras don't shy from the drab wet conditions, so clogged in mud and blood and lay bare the wounded, the wailing and the frightened. The film gathers its strength from its final third and it's here really that the film grips on the heartstrings.
Sadly though, the final sections see a sudden shift to pacifism that comes from left-field; granted, Brittain's seen more than her fair share of horror but the move doesn't work as well, due to the lack of connection to a weak wet romance and a cold emotionless series of scenes, which is a real shame.
While Testament of Youth looks beautiful and benefits from Vikander's presence, its central message is somewhat muddled and it loses the power that it should really pack given its material.