One of the beauties of cinema is how it can so beautifully encapsulate and highlight what has affected us most. In paying respects to war, Hollywood films have helped throughout the years to acknowledge the sacrifice so many before us have made for our freedoms. The twentieth century’s pervading legacy has been about war, with two of the largest wars in the history of our world happening in the first half of the century.
Testament of Youth is based on the popular memoir of English writer, feminist, and pacifist, Vera Brittain’s experiences during the First World War. The film is a powerful and moving impassioned story of love, war, and remembrance from the point of view of a woman trying to find her place in the world. From a wide-eyed young woman with youthful hopes and dreams, to the edge of despair and back again, the British film perfectly captures the ineffectiveness of war, young love, and how to find light in dark times.
The film follows young Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) on the cusp of adulthood and a modern new era. Despite the wishes of her conservative parents (Dominic West, Emily Watson) to get married, young and self-taught Vera is determined to attend Oxford University and become a writer. Vera finds support from her younger brother, Edward (Taron Egerton) and his prep-school friend, Victor (Colin Morgan). But when she meets her brother’s other friend, the dashing and robust Roland (Kit Harington), her view on what she thought she believed significantly alters.
The two become further acquainted and Vera finds much happiness in her friendship with Roland as they share a common affection for poetry. Sharing dreamy poems and writing each other heartfelt letters, within two weeks, the two teenagers fall in love. However, war breaks out and Roland chooses to prove his valor by enlisting in the armed forces, abruptly separating the two at the peak of their relationship.
While at Oxford and in the midst of war, Vera decides to change paths and become a nurse’s aide in the Voluntary Aid Detachment tending to the wounded and dying to both German and British soldiers while in London, Malta, and France. Throughout the four-year war, we see young Vera growing into her own and experiencing that which we can only hope to never experience again.
From story to location, this film does many things exceptionally well but it greatly benefits from its memorable and shining cast. The supporting roles in Testament of Youth complement the film ever so rightly with not just Egerton and Morgan, but evident brilliance from Dominic West, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, and Hayley Atwell. With Vera and Roland falling in love very quickly and communicating through letters and poems, audiences can see a genuine chemistry between the two in that short of amount of time they shared onscreen.
Swedish actress, Alicia Vikander is perfect in the role of Vera, playing her with grace, innocence and exquisite heart. From opening to closing credits, watching her in a role like this is incredibly comforting to the audience as she is natural and able to convey the grief and pain of such an era with a strong response. Feeling joy and elation, to grief and loss, much of Vera’s response to the war is seen through her eyes and it’s no doubt that Vikander manages remarkably well in displaying such raw emotion through her own.
Kit Harington plays Roland with a romantic confidence that is definitely far from any of his previous roles, which many might notice if they are avid watchers of the HBO produced drama, Game of Thrones. While much of the front line fighting was not shown to the audience, and shaded by dialogue between characters, it can be fiercely seen on the stormy face of Harington’s Roland when he verbally spars with Vera on the beach, or as he heads back on the train. The young actor plays his role with a genuine affection and portrays Roland’s fears in his expressions.
Making his directorial debut, James Kent infuses the early scenes of Testament of Youth with the romantic and incandescent splendor of the pre-war British summer. It’s interesting to see throughout the film, we see heavy influences in several shots from classic war films like All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, and Gone with the Wind. The former television producer and writer delicately directs this film almost as if it’s a Jane Austen novel, but is able to present a hard reality that many women experienced. With three-quarters of a million British soldiers killed on the front lines and leaving behind parents and families, the First World War also regrettably created a phenomenon known as “the surplus women” who were a generation of single and bereft young women. Kent is able to portray Vikander’s Vera in this light to audiences but with vulnerability and acceptance.
Though it’s a story based around war, there isn’t much carnage for audiences to digest or be reminded of. Instead, we are prompted to remember the loss through love. There are no spectacular fight scenes or astonishing visual effects. It is very simple and plays well with respects to the relationships and the poems shared between Vera and Roland, which are richly interwoven most beautifully against Kent’s nature photography and lush cinematography by Rob Hardy.
Hardy’s cinematography was one of the most pleasantly delightful parts of this film. Shot entirely in Yorkshire, Oxford, and London, the imagery seen in Testament of Youth stays with you. From estate homes to hilltops, English college campuses and shores, there is much beauty in this film’s photography. Going from playful and romantic, to dire and gut wrenching, the film would not be complete or complementary to Brittain’s memoir without the effect of such grand landscapes. In many ways, the settings and chosen locations help to make the audience feel small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things with accordance to the subject matter.
Usually with war films, we see the action from a male perspective but with this particular story being told from a woman’s point of view on the home front, it adds a relatively fresh touch to the futility of war. Vera doesn’t get to the front lines like Roland, Edward, or Victor, but by injecting herself in the middle of such horrors and understanding it for what it can be, is just as vividly devastating as it is poignant. Brittain’s is a story of women who changed the world and while it showcases strength, it also portrays an honest vulnerability.
As anyone who has read Brittain’s memoir will know and recall, it’s a devastating catalog of loss and the true scalding of the soul. The realities of the First World War were dire, so in many ways audiences might guess the outcome of this film because it glimmers with sadness and darkened hope from history lessons. That said, Testament of Youth remains a beautiful expression of Vera Brittain’s message against war and the film itself is effective in portraying that heart wrenching message unveiling the realities and true grief of war to a new generation.