A beautiful adaptation of Vera Brittain’s bestselling memoir, James Kent’s Testament Of Youth is a bitter tale for the 21st century of love in wartime.
An Educationby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
James Kent seems to have a thing for strong women. And after Margaret and The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister, we have Testament Of Youth, an adaptation of Vera Brittain’s influential memoirs. First published in 1933, it’s a howl of anger and pain, having served at the front lines herself as a VAD nurse and having lost both her fiancé and beloved brother in the Great War. A testimony to a generation of bright young things lost at the front that became an instant bestseller for both its depiction of the First World War and its strong female heroine – taking on the male-dominated Establishment to fight for her place at Oxford before abandoning it to serve King and Country behind the trenches. And while there have been previous notable adaptations for the small screen, with Testament Of Youth James Kent dishes up a deliciously sensual account of life one hundred years ago.
Swimming at a pond with her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his friend Victor (Colin Morgan), Vera (Alicia Vikander) shows herself the equal of any man – diving in while the men are still going about their undressing. But while they are thinking of leaving school and going to Oxford, Vera’s not got it so easy. Her doting father (Dominic West) is happy to buy her a piano and be soothed by her feminine charms, but why spend the money on a university education? Inspired by Edward’s friend and would-be-poet Roland (Kit Harington) with a little bit of literary rivalry, Vera begins to dream of becoming a writer. And with Edward’s help, her father is gradually persuaded. Accompanied by Aunt Belle (Joanna Scanlan) as chaperone, Vera sets off to Oxford to sit her entrance exam – under the withering eye of Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson). But before term has even begun, war breaks up and Vera finds that all the young men in her life have signed up and are off to war.
Draped in elegant cottons and linens, Alicia Vikander makes for a beguiling Brittain – all clipped Queen’s English and feminist fervour, her performance both gutsy and poised. And it’s no mean feat, as she heads out of the hallowed hallways of Oxford and into the hospital, nursing and comforting the soldiers back from the front. It’s an education that goes from bad to worse as she signs up to serve in field hospitals overseas, caked in mud, blood and bodies. And Brittain’s story is packed with the kind of coincidences that make Testament Of Youth utterly compelling, uncovering her brother in a field full of dying soldiers. And with glorious cinematography by Rob Hardy (The Invisible Woman), Testament Of Youth is a genuinely moving testament brought beautifully up to date for a new generation and in remembrance of the Great War in these centennial years.
Where Testament Of Youth falls down lies in the very nature of its adaptation for the silver screen, squeezing Brittain’s memoirs of over 600 pages into snappy feature length. Kent’s film necessarily skimps on detail, and serves to document the events of Vera’s life rather than fathom the depths of her grief at losing her loved ones (the men don’t create too great a void, as none of Vera’s fallen muster anything close to Vikander’s onscreen vitality) or her guilt for surviving – a woman unable to sign up. As a result, Testament Of Youth is a First World War film without trenches, mustard gas or rifles that risks making the war beautiful, telling its story within earshot of the shelling but from a distance. And Juliette Towhidi’s script isn’t quite able to spew out the emotional guts of Brittain’s story in a way to rival the men’s story. Like the photography and production design, it’s too restrained, as each scene fulfils its dramatic purpose – here for Vera to care for the “Hun” soldier – a brief but formative moment which will pave the way for her outspoken pacifism after the war.
Less a primal howl of pain and bitterness at losing two friends, her adored brother and her fiancé Roland, Testament Of Youth is Vera Brittain’s story from innocence to Armistice Day. There’s a freshness which hides some of the film’s more clichéd scenes, such as the hanky-waving platform farewell, and while it’s moving and utterly compelling, Testament Of Youth is too ambitious in scope, emotionally not quite up to the deadly cataclysm of the Great War. But as the gripping tale of Vera Brittain’s determination to fight alongside her menfolk, Testament Of Youth is a passionate portrait of a strong woman indeed.
Testament Of Youth is released on 16th January 2014 in the UK