Testament of Youth
London Film Festival: Respectful adaptation of Vera Brittain's memoir starring Alicia Vikander
The gut-wrenchingly poignant WWI memoir Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain was a bestseller in 1933, although by then young men knew war wasn’t a school trip with guns. The basis for a 1979 TV series, it remains a moving tribute to the innocence of the generation that entered into a war believing it to be noble, or at least short and conclusive. The debut feature film from TV director James Kent retells a family’s tragedy with popular young performers, a steady camera and considered cinematography. We know this story too well, but it is to the filmmakers’ credit that we still hope for a different ending.
Regret dressed in tweed and lace, Testament of Youth pivots on the Brittain family. Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) is a wilful, intelligent Vera. Her parents (Emily Watson and Dominic West) don’t want her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) to enlist. But when friend Victor (Colin Morgan from TV’s Merlin) and love interest Roland (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington) go off to war, her brother goes too. Vera follows, giving up a hard-won place at university to work as a nurse. She treats wounded Germans, tends to horrific injuries and wanders an endless field of soldiers waiting for triage. We admire her poise and wait for the dreaded telegrams.
Like The Imitation Game, this could be considered heritage cinema. Innovative filmmaking, it certainly isn’t. But it is consistent, sparing and respectful. Vikander’s contained emotions are the antithesis to today’s melodrama. The unending pain of loss is laid out with the restraint expected of that period. Brittain’s pacifism did not stop war – that is why her story needs to be repeated, like that of All Quiet on the Western Front. Testament of Youth is tasteful and lyrical, but it still packs a punch.
Screening on Tue 14, Thu 16 and Fri 17 Oct as part of the London Film Festival 2014. General release from Fri 16 Jan.