Testament of Youth: A powerful pacifist treatise
by Naman Ramachandran
- The film, based on Vera Brittain’s bestselling memoir, is a signal achievement for director James Kent, who makes his feature debut after a long career in television
Testament of Youth [+see also:
film profile], the Centrepiece Gala at the ongoing British Film Institute London Film Festival (8-19 October), based on Vera Brittain’s bestselling memoir about the First World War is a signal achievement for director James Kent, who makes his feature debut after a long career in television. Kent crafts an incredibly moving tale of the tragic loss of lives of those cut off in the flower of their youth. Granted that in Brittain’s memoir he, and screenwriter Juliette Towhidi (Calendar Girls), had some powerful source material, but condensing that lengthy tome into a compelling cinematic narrative is a feat indeed.
The film opens in 1914 in a British rural idyll. The characters are golden and born into privilege. The strong-minded Vera, who wants to join her brother Edward and his friends Victor and Roland at university in Oxford, against the objections of her father, enjoys with them what will be the last holiday of their young lives before the outbreak of war. Though Victor has a crush on Vera, her heart is set on Roland and he reciprocates. What promises to be a perfect start of term, all together in Oxford, is shattered when war is declared and the men (except Victor who is turned down due to poor eyesight) enlist and find themselves on the frontline trenches in France, battling the German army, Spanish flu and mustard gas. Vera, suddenly alone in Oxford reading English literature, finds a new vocation and joins the war effort as a nurse, and eventually volunteers to go to the war front. Tragedy strikes once, twice and then thrice. After the war Vera becomes one of the leading pacifists of her time.
Testament of Youth is of a piece with Joe Wright’s Atonement [+see also:
film profile] in describing the horrors of war. Kent and cinematographer Rob Hardy (The Invisible Woman [+see also:
interview: Ralph Fiennes
film profile]) find a lyrical beauty in death, thus rendering the events on screen all the more impactful. The film is typically British in that everything is rendered subtly and the reveals are in a layered manner. The film is also typically British in that this is very much a prestige production, handsomely mounted, which is not surprising since period drama is a genre that the country excels in. Unlike many stiff upper lip British dramas, however, Testament of Youth has a real core of emotion. Kent and his talented cast manage to evoke the yearning of young love and the numbing shock of loss in equal measure. Game of Thrones fans will thrill to an effortless performance from Kit Harington as Roland and young British stars Taron Egerton as Edward and Colin Morgan as Victor. But it is Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair [+see also:
interview: Mikkel Boe Følsgaard
interview: Nikolaj Arcel
film profile]) as Vera who is a revelation. Vera is a somewhat pig-headed character seen in almost every frame of the film and is a character difficult to pull off, even for a more seasoned actor, but Vikander achieves this with aplomb, striking the right balance between strength and fragility. Expect to see plenty more of her in the years to come.
The film is produced by Heyday Films in association with Hotwells Productions, with backing from BBC Films, Screen Yorkshire, the British Film Institute, Nordisk Film Production and LipSync. Protagonist Pictures is handling international sales and Lionsgate UK will release in the UK on January 16, 2015.