Testament of Youth
- Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain
- Kit Harington as Roland Leighton
- Taron Egerton as Edward Brittain
- Colin Morgan as Victor Richardson
- Emily Watson as Mrs Brittain
- Dominic West as Mr Brittain
- Hayley Atwell as Hope
- Miranda Richardson as Miss Lorimer
A beautifully moving and stirring movie, Testament of Youth recounts the true events in the life of Vera Brittain during the First World War, filled with determination, horror, heartache and self-sacrifice. Powerfully acted and poignant to the core, it’s a well-rendered triumph of emotion and bravery from her memoir.
We begin on Armistice Day and while everyone is celebrating the end of the First World War, Vera Brittain begins to reflect on her own personal experiences. We flashback to 1914, Vera is an independent, passionate and free thinking girl whose attitudes were at odds with her parents ideas of her becoming a respectable lady. Along with her good-hearted brother Edward, friend and secret admirer Victor Richardson and sensitive Roland Leighton, Vera enjoys rebelling against the norms of the time and we first glimpse her swimming in a lake without a care in the world. She has ambitions of becoming a writer, but her shocked parents are not exactly thrilled to hear of these plans. She is encouraged by Roland( who also would like to write but doesn’t quite have the confidence), who she holds a torch for to apply to Oxford because of her dreams and while nervous she does so. When she gets a place at Oxford, she couldn’t be more overjoyed and she makes her intentions clear to Roland, who reciprocates her love. Yet this happiness for Vera proves to be short-lived as the War begins and Roland signs up, along with Edward and Victor. With the world at war and it continuing on longer than expected, Vera tries to go about her studies at Oxford which she fought so long and hard for. But her irrepressible spirit tells her that she must act and sacrificing her place at university, she begins to work as a nurse, which eventually takes her to The Front. Yet the war is a cruel time and one by one, Vera’s life is turned upside down by personal tragedy and turmoil. But the young Vera isn’t broken yet and continues to do her part for the war, while bravely experiencing the utter horrors it can bring.
James Kent contributes an emotionally involving direction to the film. He thankfully doesn’t fall prey to the usual problems of making a true story have an impact on the screen without overdoing it. Testament of Youth isn’t strictly a biopic, it is based on a true story but doesn’t feel episodic like other biopics. It does have elements of a biopic that are thankfully realised with heart and soul. The way that Kent intercuts scenes from a happier time in Vera’s life with the devastating effects of war is assured and heart-wrenching to watch. Aside from this, the use of camerawork puts the audience deep in the heart of the emotional story by often focusing on faces, in particular the changes on Vera’s as the war deals its tragic blow on her. It is a sensitively done movie that doesn’t go for histrionics, instead it opts for subtle emotions that make the story all the more powerful. The closeness of the story makes us feel like we are there and when Vera experiences something, we too feel the exact same way as her. For a movie that centers around war, the battle scenes in Testament of Youth are few and far between. I believe that Kent is more interested in showing the aftermath of the war and the horrific wounds both physical and emotional it can inflict on us. Though it must be said it doesn’t scrimp when showing the horror of war either when Vera is a nurse, which adds a very haunting angle to the movie. Although it is a heartbreaking film and moving in every sense of the word, Testament of Youth does however retain a sense of glimmering hope in the form of Vera. Through her struggles, we witness her transform and eventually see her ultimately become a passionate pacifist, who refuses to forget the fallen. Vera Brittain was such a brave woman and it is shown here how she suffered immense pain, but managed to survive being engulfed by it to write her personal story down for the world to know. There may be romance within the story between Vera and Roland, but it is not a full-blown passionate union. It is a fleeting and tentative romance that only heightens the ultimate tragedy that it later ends in. A beautifully evocative score adds considerable impact to events and seems to act as Vera’s resilient voice as the war rages on and personal suffering surrounds her.
Anchoring the film with a powerful performance is Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain. Essaying the part with depth, emotional subtlety and strength, we get a real picture of what Vera endured during the war and how it shaped her as a person. Vikander brings passion to the part and never reverts to over the top displays of emotion; the effectiveness of her performance lies in the nuance she gives it and how she doesn’t require a single line of dialogue to get across the intense emotions within her. Kit Harington is very good at portraying Roland, the man who Vera falls in love with and who makes a deep impression on her. His scenes with Vikander are wonderfully acted to say the least and contribute to their doomed romance. Then there is Taron Egerton, who imbues Vera’s brother Edward with a loyalty and sympathy that is sensitively observed. There is a deep honesty to Egerton’s performance that really shows his talent here. Colin Morgan is subtly wonderful as the pining Victor, and there is excellently classy support provided by Emily Watson and Dominic West as Vera’s disapproving parents. Seen in a small role as a nurse working with Vera on The Front, Hayley Atwell makes the most of the part and Miranda Richardson contributes her usual reliable presence as an Oxford teacher who comes to respect Vera.
Testament of Youth is an emotional recounting of Brittain’s memoir and it does the deeply personal subject matter of suffering, sacrifice and perseverance justice with clarity and a strong lead performance from Alicia Vikander.