Directed by James Kent
Starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Colin Morgan, Taron Edgerton, Dominic West, Emily Watson
Leading up to the centenary of World War One we’ve seen plenty of weighty, somber filmic meditations of the event, plus plenty of nationalist sentiment in the local media as well,* so this film adaptation of Vera Brittain’s anti-war memoir is nothing if not timely. It’s also very good, albeit not without flaws.
In 1914, Vera Brittain (Alicia Wikander) is young, rebellious, intelligent and headstrong. Despite women not being eligible to receive degrees, she is determined to study at Oxford, much to the consternation of her well-off parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson), who steer her toward a more traditional role involving piano recitals and stultifying afternoon teas. Vera wants none of that; indeed, she’s not too keen on the notion of marriage either, which is a bit of a blow to her would-be suitor, Victor (Colin Morgan), although she softens when she meets Roland Leighton (Kit Harington), a friend of her brother, Edward (Taron Edgerton). Roland is an emerging writer like Vera, and encourages her Oxfordian aspirations, but their romance is disrupted by the onset of war. Roland, Edward and Victor all enlist, while Vera volunteers as a nurse.
Director James Kent and cinematographer Rob Hardy do amazing work in re-creating the period, building a pre-war Britain that is something like an idyll, a mythic echo of an idealised time of innocence. It’s all dark wood and flowered wallpaper, delicate china cups, lush green woods and furze-blanketed moors, stiff upper lips Victorian values. The war as an event is kept at a distance – we see its effects long before we see it, first in the flush of excitement as young men in uniforms pile into trains bound for France then, gradually, as those same men comeback crippled and broken. The war is an encroaching, eliding force, taking things away piece by piece: bodily integrity, dignity, sanity, life and, above all else, innocence.
As a film, Testament Of Youth is a “fall from grace” narrative, redolent in mythic resonance. Even the names of characters, albeit coincidentally, reinforce this: Harrigton’s dashing soldier-poet is called Roland, for Chrissakes, and you’re not going to find a more British name than Vera Brittain. Vikander does excellent work in the central role, letting us see her grow and change as her wartime experiences batter her and the losses mount up. Indeed, perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is the palpable, inexorable sense of pointless loss it evokes as numberless young people are fed into the meat grinder for no good purpose, a tragedy of almost unimaginable scope made real by the film’s focus on its effects on Brittain and her circle.
It is an oddly disjointed film, however, growing more episodic and disconnected as it progresses, and the deliberate pacing can be trying at times (even if it does give us time to drink in Hardy’s gorgeous visuals). Also, while the scenes set in the field hospitals where Brittain toiled are effective, we don’t spend a great deal of time there, even though the real Brittain’s actual memoir focuses on that period.
Still, Testament Of Youthremains a powerful and affecting piece, both a strong drama and a reminder that when we remember times of war it is not to praise them but to condemn.
*For international readers, of which I know I have more than a few: April 25th, 2015, marked the 100th anniversary of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landing at Gallipoli during the Dardanelles campaign. The ANZAC myth and ANZAC Day is an important part of Australian national identity, but this year in particular the ostensibly somber day of reflection seems to have been hijacked by interests who think that the willingness to blindly charge uphill into machine gun fire under the mistaken belief that the people at the top of the hill are somehow a threat to home and hearth half a world away is a trait to be lauded, like Bradman’s skill with a bat or Paterson’s knack for rhyming. It’s a very weird time in Australian politics.