Débutante British feature film director James Kent, along with Calendar Girls (2003) screenwriter Juliette Towhidi, has succulently crafted an emotionally bruising, evocative and smartly streamlined adaptation of one of the greatest rallying cries to pacifism, Vera Brittain’s remarkable Testament of Youth (2015). An account of her war years between 1914-18, Brittain’s book is unique in a variety of ways and the challenges of adapting for the screen are numerous as a result. Kent, who gathers a cast of extremely bright young things, creates a drama that glides with sorrowful grace, pitching at a respectful and tear-inducing tone.
We open in the pre-war years, where Vera (Alicia Vikander), her brother Edward and friend Victor (Colin Morgan) are full of the exuberance and innocence of youth, larking about and swimming in a river close the Brittain’s family home. These fleeting moments of joy establish the characters’ youthfulness, full of prospects and their anticipation for what life has in store, which incidentally includes dreams of the hallowed academic halls and honey-coloured spires of Oxford. This moment is soured by a bitter aftertaste, however, as war looms ever closer on the horizon. There are fleeting glimpses of newspaper headlines, almost out of frame, announcing the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and the mounting hostilities between Britain and Germany.
Their friend Roland Leighton (played by Game of Thrones‘ Kit Harington), joins Victor and Edward as they celebrate their final day at school on the eve of the war. Before long these naïve young men are chattering away at the prospect of signing up and then the inevitable happens – war breaks out. Arguably this could have easily fallen into tired costume drama territory, loaded with Edwardian sentimentality and paisley patterns. Fortunately, a quiet dignity is present throughout to ward this off. Equally it could have relied on the tropes of many a war film, whereby the heroism of those involved is lauded to Olympian levels, casually forgetting the tragic waste of life, caught up in demonstrating the gore and violence. This is not the case with Testament of Youth and while it does not shy away from the brutality of combat, it equally it never revels in it. A particularly pertinent moment captures this when, on the fields of France, Harington’s Roland sees the mangled corpse of British solider, which formed the basis of his poem, Villanelle.
Vera abandons her Oxford education signing up as a nurse, firstly on the home front and latterly heading across the channel to war-torn France. We see her comfort a dying German soldier, witness the death of loved ones and bathe bloodied Allied troops. Vikander is a revelation, with a pitch perfect clipped accent, oscillating nimbly between a world-weary woman, defying the devastation that is being wreaked upon her life and a child broken down by the horrors that plague her daily duties. Avoiding chest-thumping nationalism – in fact, remaining antithetical to such sentiments – this is not a war-film; it is an anti-war film, set in the one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. Importantly, Testament of Youth is from a woman’s perspective, an often-neglected viewpoint when it come to the First World War. We see, through Vera, the women who stood watching husbands, brothers, fathers, friends and lovers go to their deaths and faced the dawn of the post-war years, living with the knowledge of the horrors that had preceded them.
This review was originally published on 15 October 2014 as part of our 2014 BFI London Film Festival coverage.
Joe Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh