Testament of Youth Review
When the armistice bells rang on November 11th 1918, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) took stock of her sorrow. With the war’s heavy losses, she couldn’t conceive of returning to a normal life.
In 1914, against the opinion of her narrow-minded parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson), Vera aimed to become a writer and go to Oxford. In her battle to secure her education she was championed by her younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his friend Roland Leighton (Kit Harington), with whom she was deeply in love. Through hard work and brute stubbornness, she secured her place at university.
Screenwriter Juliette Towhidi pivots the film’s tone at the outbreak of the conflict. Scenes of friendship and romance progressively descend into nightmare. With Vera, we discover the war’s daily horrors: opening the papers to read the endless columns of names, the appearance of ghostly men with missing limbs. Death lingers everywhere, from adieus to those going to the front, to imagining the violence close ones are subjected to.
Alicia Vikander gives a stunning performance of Vera’s rare character: determined, frank, outspoken only when the occasion is significant, and with remarkable compassion. During the film’s first half hour, she conveys sharply that Vera’s continued life in her hometown would be tantamount to imprisonment. Her conversations with Roland are raw and realistic, a whole register away from usual romantic dialogue, and helped by Kit Harrington’s solid performance. Dominic West is stellar in navigating his duality between from insular father and sensitive man. He has seen war before, and discreetly shatters as his son leaves for the front. Egerton handles with dexterity the profound and moving bond between Vera and Edward.
Director James Kent’s direction works beautifully across the contrasting universes of this tale. Using a painting as a starting point for a flashback, the film has characters evolving through bright landscapes. The war shifts to sober, darker arrangements and restrained acting. When the worse hits, Vera mutely slides down against a wall. Yet, Kent also includes rare moments of splendour in the shell-shaped landscapes. These echo a letter from Vera’s friend, a soldier who finds small moments of grace among the terror.
Testament of Youth has rare off-key moments. Edward's letters from the front, responding to his friend's deaths, strike as oddly optimistic. On one or two occasions the settings are over-dramatized, as for instance, the pelting rain during Vera's arrival at the front.
This film does what very few on WWI manage. It gives the conflict a sense of immediacy, and conveys the horror it inflicted on the lives of those left behind. To survive, Vera teaches herself to live surrounded by ghosts.
Disclosure: The film was part funded by the BFI with whom the author of this review is employed. The reviewer was unaware of this situation until viewing the film and they have had no role in the production in any way.