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Peter Jackson has been busy of late. The New Zealand director’s steampunk-inflected adaptation of the fantasy novel Mortal Engines will land this Christmas, while cinemagoers lucky enough to live close to a screening have recently been treated to his moving, fascinating documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, for which he has assembled and retouched archive footage of British soldiers that was recorded during the First World War.

The film was jointly commissioned by 14-18 NOW, an organisation set up to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day, and the Imperial War Museum, the holders of the visual footage (audio recordings, made by the BBC after the war, also feature). As well as restorative work such as sharpening the images and conversion of the archive material to 3D, the director and his team have also colourised much of it, the switch from black and white to colour that occurs around ten minutes in being one of a few coups de cinema here; otherwise, little attention is drawn to the technical achievements that have taken place, which allows the viewer to focus more on the subject matter instead of the obvious prowess of Jackson’s team.

I’m not much of a fan of artificial colouring (though a black and white rendering of the world in the first place is no less artificial as a process) and I’m ambivalent about 3D more generally, but here it undoubtedly brings the men to life. We see them eagerly signing up to go to war, taking part in training exercises and then confronting the horrors of trench life at the Battle of the Somme. It is – was – a harrowing journey.

The conspicuous cameras that trundle before the men are often trained on large groups or smaller clusters, as opposed to individuals, and the camera operators were particularly drawn to the now-sharply-rendered faces of the soldiers, lingering in front of them. Typically, the men stare back at the lens, the result of their own fascination with a nascent technology; presumably most of the people we see here were being filmed for the first time in their lives. To bring the footage to life even more, Jackson’s expert lip-readers have figured out what the soldiers were saying, and actors have been employed to add their voices to the soundtrack; apparently much care has been taken on getting the right accents to tally with the regiments that are shown on screen. This is augmented by the aforementioned testimonies by soldiers that were recorded later, when the men had some literal and figurative distance from the events.

Such striving for authenticity – along with the technical prowess – makes this a fine attempt at enhancing a historic record, though of course the colouring will turn off some people, the 3D will turn off even more and its worth pointing out that the recollections of the soldiers cannot ultimately be relied upon (stress and time may mean that their testimonies are not 100% accurate).

That said, there is valuable insight here into the lives of British combatants (we only see dead or captured bodies of German counterparts, and never hear from survivors). The footage of life in the trenches is startling: the camera captures the nameless dead strewn around on the ground in No Man’s Land, shells constantly exploding nearby, rats everywhere and terrible unsanitary conditions (though there is something amusing about the line of men using the long-drops together, the ideas of privacy and comfort having long disappeared); but the awfulness of war contrasts considerably at times with the often upbeat mood of the men, who were eager to fight for their country. The film ends, oddly and ironically enough, by addressing their dismay at the end of the war. Many were unemployed and lost the sense of purpose they had while serving in the military; some men speak of the general lack of understanding when they returned home, with the general public unable to understand what they had been through. It may be 100 years too late, but this gripping, vital work does at least begin to address that issue. (5/5)

Cinemas in the UK have been – and still are – showing They Shall Not Grow Old with a recorded Q&A between critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode and Jackson, but the BBC is screening a 2D version on Sunday evening for those in the UK. (BBC2, Sunday 11 November, 9.30pm).

Alicia-Vikander-as_3141524bI 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 cdn.indiewire.comGerman 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.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
129 minutes.
Year:
2015.

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