I missed Testament Of Youth, which is based on the bestselling First World War memoirs of writer, pacifist, feminist and nurse Vera Brittain, when it was released in the UK earlier this year. It received several positive reviews and it’s not difficult to see why: conventional it may be, but it’s also a confident, classy debut feature by James Kent, it serves as a moving anti-war piece and it features good performances by the ensemble cast, which is headed up by the impressive Alicia Vikander. She plays Brittain between the ages of 20 and 24, a young woman who knows her own mind and is unwilling to follow the path through life that has been mapped out by her wealthy industrialist father (played by Dominic West): he wants her to settle down, find a suitable man to marry and have children, whereas she intends to study English Literature at Oxford and to become a writer. She does gain a place at the university, though the onset of war provokes a change in direction, and during the conflict she becomes a nurse, serving in England, Malta and finally close to the front line in France. So it’s one of those films that concentrates on an idyllic summer to begin with – all sun-dappled pools and the promise of romance in the lovely environs of the Peak District, though some footage was apparently shot on the North Yorkshire Moors – before we see several bright young things, including Vera, enthusiastically sign up for military service and subsequently endure the worst of experiences. We don’t witness much in the way of re-staged warfare, as the film naturally sticks with Brittain’s own perspective and experiences throughout, but the effects of the conflict slowly take over: the youthful, carefree spirit prevalent in the early part of the story dissipates, the English countryside and twin sanctuaries of home and college giving way to mud-caked field hospitals where wards are overflowing and bodies stack up in piles.
This transition, from romantic period drama to a film heavily concerned with the attendant horrors of war on the front line, ensures that Testament Of Youth becomes a bloody and grim film, albeit still a 12A release in the UK, and its second half is suffused with a necessary sadness: death and mourning is everywhere, final words are spoken and conversations become ever more poignant. Frames are gradually filled with amputees, men with open, gaping wounds, dead fighters or dying soldiers spluttering their last breaths and much more, and Brittain and her fellow nurses are understandably shocked and overwhelmed. During this period of her life the writer tried to save the lives of German soldiers as well as allied forces, and this experience understandably helped to shape her own pacifist views, the formation of which serves as a kind of crescendo to Kent’s film. Brittain’s real-life nine month stint in Malta is truncated for the purposes of this particular adaptation, but this does at least allow greater focus on the horrific situation she found herself in in France, where both sides suffered so many casualties; one crane shot gradually reveals that a field next to Brittain’s hospital is overflowing with wounded or dead infantrymen, all being attended to in rows by a mere handful of overworked nurses. It’s a harrowing sight, and allows us to understand why Brittain had mixed feelings with regard to 1918’s Armistice Day, seen fleetingly in flag-waving glory at the beginning of the film. By the end there is an inescapable feeling of melancholy caused by all this loss, which is subtly reinforced by a montage that revisits several of the film’s earlier settings, now unpeopled.
The story simultaneously charts Brittain’s relationships through the war years with fiancé Roland (Kit Hartington), brother Edward (Taron Edgerton) and friend Victor (Colin Morgan), three young men who sign up for the fight abroad. The romance with Roland is played out straightforwardly via key moments (parting as a train departs a busy station, reunited on a windswept beach, etc) but it worked well enough for me. During the early scenes Hartington seems incapable of wiping an ingratiating smirk off his face, but he gets better as his character’s feelings for Brittain are complicated by the traumatic experience of trench warfare, and this is the best I’ve seen him outside of Game Of Thrones. Testament Of Youth is impeccably shot by Rob Hardy, who is himself gaining a reputation as a director of note, and there is fine attention to period detail, particularly with regard to the Brittain family house (though the action is largely confined to a drawing room, a yard, a bedroom and a hall). Vikander is excellent, ensuring that Brittain retains a quiet dignity throughout, and she is ably supported by those actors mentioned above; there are also minor roles for Emily Watson, Hayley Atwell and Miranda Richardson, the latter stealing her brief scenes as a matronly Oxford scholar. A shame, then, that Kent’s film has largely been slept on by cinemagoers, though that’s hardly a surprise given that it was released in the middle of winter in the UK, when the big awards season hitters usually land, and during the summer blockbuster season elsewhere, which is a tough beat for a traditional period romance (or indeed a war film that doesn’t show soldiers fighting). But it is worth seeking out if you haven’t done so already.
Directed by: James Kent.
Written by: Juliette Towhidi.
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Hartington, Colin Morgan, Taron Edgerton, Dominic West, Emily Watson, Hayley Atwell, Miranda Richardson.
Cinematography: Rob Hardy.
Editing: Lucia Zucchetti.
Music: Max Richter.
Running Time: 129 minutes.