Featuring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Emily Watson, Hayley Atwell, Colin Morgan, Joanna Scanlon, Alexandra Roach, Dominic West, Miranda Richardson
Director: James Kent
Writer: Juliette Towhidi (adapted from Vera Brittain’s memoir of the same title)
Movie website: www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfilms/film/testament_of_youth
Australian release date: 23 April, 2015
Verdict: Falls short of greatness as a film, but as an anti-war statement is about as emotion-charged and powerful as it gets.
Based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War 1, Testament of Youth personalises the brutalising of a generation whose youthful innocence was forfeited to the ravages of a war of unprecedented scale, horror and destruction.
In tracking the toll the war exacts from Vera (Alicia Vikander) and her friends, and their transformation from privileged youth in their prime to traumatised wrecks or worse, the film is chronologically straight-forward. This before/after approach is appropriate and probably unavoidable, but makes for a slow start.
The film opens on an English summer in full bloom, with a young, beautiful and headstrong Vera, her younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton), and his mates Roland (Kit Harington) and Victor (Colin Morgan) wiling away their holidays swimming, strolling through fields of bluebells, joshing and skylarking. Vera, serious-minded and intense, is a little aloof, although not so much as to be unmindful of the shy attention Roland is paying her. Turns out they both have literary aspirations, and soon the scent of budding love, as well as bluebells, is in the air. All would be idyllic, if only Vera’s father would consent to her sitting the Oxford entrance exam, rather than insisting that she instead prepare herself for marriage in the manner of all young ladies from well-to-do families of good standing.
Eventually he succumbs. Vera is accepted into Oxford, her dreams beckon, her relationship with Roland develops, and life looks rosy. Then comes the declaration of war.
One by one, the lads in Vera’s tight-knit crew enlist. Roland, eager to take up this once-in-a-lifetime chance to serve his country, as he perceives it, assures her that he will be stationed in England and unlikely to see active service abroad, anticipating that the skirmish with Germany will be over within months. Vera is uneasy, but accepting. At Edward’s behest, she even persuades her father to consent to his signing up at 18 years of age, and subsequently marvels at the sight of her “little brother” in his uniform, now so grown up, “a man”. O the folly, as she is soon to understand all too well.
It’s all been rather jolly hockey sticks to this point, but as the reality of war hits, the film finds its power. The first shifting up of gears occurs when Roland returns from the front for a few days’ leave. He is clearly damaged and disorientated, and initially unable to relate to Vera. It’s an ominous portent of the changes that lie in store. Like so many young couples of the time, in the intensity of the moment brought about by a desperately uncertain future, they commit to marriage.
With her fiancé, brother and other male friends now abroad at war, Vera’s university and literary ambitions are relegated to the status of intolerably trivial indulgence. She leaves Oxford to train as a volunteer nurse. Her gruelling experiences treating wounded soldiers at home, then at a makeshift and crudely equipped hospital near the frontline in France (which has a section accommodating injured German soldiers, presumably captured as prisoners-of-war), are profoundly life-changing for her.
A scene in which she comforts a dying German soldier as he draws his last breaths is extraordinarily moving, as is another in which her seriously wounded “little brother” Edward obliquely confides his feelings for a soldier friend. These precious instants in which humanity transcends the apocalyptic horror of war, and love endures the unendurable, are also articulated in a battlefield scene of immeasurable desolation. A classic shot of dark denuded trees in the midst of a black blast-pocked WW1 battlescape combines to truly heart-rending effect with the poetic voiceover words of Edward’s soldier friend, who writes of sensing peace and beauty in the reflection of the sun shining golden in the shell hole puddles.
This is a standout among many instances of fine writing throughout (perhaps lifted or adapted from Brittain’s memoirs), although the quality is not always maintained. The performances are solid. There are some tired cliches that would have been better edited out, such as Vera running along a train platform as her lover departs for the Front.
While falling short of greatness as a film, as an anti-war statement Testament of Youth is about as emotion-charged and powerful as it gets. That is a big declaration, but I speak as I find. Days after the viewing, I am still affected.
With the ANZAC Day Centenary imminent, this is a timely release. The diggers of Gallipoli and the Western Front are part of Vera Brittain’s Lost Generation. They should be mourned for all they lost and honoured for their courage in extreme adversity, but the war that ripped their youth and innocence away should not be glorified or imbued with meaning it did not have. Their story is a tragedy, not a triumph, and should be listened to and learnt from, as Brittain intended when she wrote her testimony as a committed pacifist. This film remains true to that pacifist conviction, and that is the source of its power and its greatest strength.
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