Testament of Youth (Leeds International Film Festival) Review
The contrivances of real life can sometimes be so preposterous that it can stretch the very limits of incredulity. Such is the case in Testament of Youth where calamity after calamity is heaped upon the head of its heroine Vera Brittain. Were these tragedies not sourced from Vera’s very real memoirs then they would seem trite and almost fantastical, an exercise in destroying everything that one could hold dear in as efficient a manner as possible. But the knowledge that this is all real, that every heartache and every loss is rooted in historical fact, gives each successive tragedy a solemn weight.
Detailing the life of Vera, her brother (Edward), her fiancé (Roland Leighton), and her friend (Victor Richardson) in the immediate run up to and duration of the First World War Testament of Youth is the best kind of adaptation in that it chooses to be its own thing. Removing large chunks of incident from the original memoir the film specifically chooses the key moments and periods in Vera’s life to showcase the emotional toll of World War 1. Through the lens of the film World War 1 for the boys is a meat grinder, an anonymous repository of death, but for Vera it is a crucible and the film wisely focuses its attention on the emotional devastation brought about by that. We’re with Vera for the majority of the film, very little of it takes place outside of her perspective and the scenes that do often represent her thought process or imagination, and Swedish actress Alicia Vikanderdoes stupendous work in shouldering that responsibility.
I’m unfamiliar with Vikander’s other work but in Testament of Youth she is a genuine revelation, both romantic and steely. Vikander finds an emotional centre in Vera and then harrowingly demonstrates the internalisation that is keeping her alive and sane. It is the kind of performance that makes you take notice and despite the depth of talent in the cast she is very much the standout. The three boys are played by young actors probably best known for their TV work. Among them Kit Harrington as Roland is probably the most pleasant surprise, finding a heart and depth in a character who could easily be a cipher. Roland is an important facet of the early part of the film and Harrington’s easy chemistry with the rest of the cast and Vikander in particular is key to this. Tagon Egerton as Edward delivers a sympathetic performance, whilst Colin Morgan has very little screen time as Victor (who is side-lined a little in this adaptation) but makes his scenes count. With the focus so keenly on these four, the rest of the characters are largely bit parts and are fleshed out by a terrific ensemble. Dominic West as Vera and Edward’s father gets perhaps the most to work with, his Edwardian emotional reserve being tested and eventually broken by the ravages of the war and his raw displays of distress are at times heartbreaking. Hayley Atwell makes a small but impactful appearance as a slightly off kilter nurse, whilst Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson breathe life into fairly thinly sketched characters as Vera’s lecturer and mother respectively.
Perhaps the most notable thing about the film is the assured and specific direction by James Kent. Despite being Kent’s debut as a film director, although he has a sizeable TV filmography, he manages to create something that feels very immediate and personal. There is a subtle verite style to the film, hand held cameras gently bob around as they track events and characters often feel like they’ve walked into the eyeline of the camera rather than being the specific focus, which captures the immediacy of events and the subtle horror of what is happening. The film also manages to communicate the horror of the war without spending much time actually showing the war. In fact scenes set on a battlefield or in the trenches account for about a minute of footage if that. But there is no need to show the carnage, because we understand implicitly the toll of the war. A quick tour of a trench, soldiers staring down the lens of the camera, or a pan across a sea of wounded soldiersin a field hospital highlight the omnipresent horror of the war far better than any protracted battle scenes. It also wisely keeps the focus on Vera, as our experience of the frontline are tied into the information she receive from letters and correspondence from her friends. We see and know what she knows, we feel what she feels.
Testament of Youth is something of a gruelling movie, but it is also an exceptionally worthwhile experience. Shot with genuine care and passion, and littered with amazing performances, Testament of Youthis a fitting tribute to Vera’s work. With an amazing eye for the real and the lyrical James Kent brings the work to life and in doing so has created something true to the spirit of the original work, dripping with the humanism that inspired Vera Brittain in the post war years.
‘Testament of Youth’ opened Leeds International Film Festival. More information about the festival can be found here. It will open across the country in January 2015.