Director: James Kent
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, Hayley Atwell
Running time: 129 minutes
The most important or successful stories about World War One are those that aren’t really about World War One at all. Journey’s End, after all, is really about Stanhope and his alcoholism – Private Peaceful, about the relationship between three brothers. These stories, despite being set against the backdrop of a war that occurred a hundred years ago, can transcend time to connect with a modern audience. Testament of Youth – based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of the same name – speaks to its audience with an honesty specific to the onslaught of films adapted from true stories released this year.
Testament of Youth follows the perspective of Vera Brittain throughout the war. We see her struggle against the binding restrictions for women in the Edwardian period; from her persistent fight to go to Oxford to her chaperoned dates, the limits of society are ever-present in the first part of the film. War, in comparison, seems like a liberation, as Vera leaves her prestigious place at Oxford to become a nurse, deciding to go to France to be closer to her brother.
Vera suffers a multitude of tragedies throughout the film; fortunately, James Kent, the film’s director, refuses to create a sweeping, Fellowes-esque melodrama. The visual technique is an interesting, challenging one, often using hand-held camera work and favouring wobbly extreme close-ups to a long shot. If Andrea Arnold had shot Atonement, it would probably be something like this. Also much like Atonement, Testament of Youth refuses to romanticise the war – a beautifully shot moment towards the end of the film reflecting on the peace and beauty of an empty battle field mingles with a heady moment of grief; romanticising war is a concept carefully considered, deconstructed and ultimately put aside throughout the film.
It’s easy to tell, however, that this is a first time feature film for James Kent. Whilst the film is certainly visually interesting, the depth of field was at times so narrow it became jarring. Many moments weren’t allowed to simply settle; each time Vera, played to perfection by Alicia Vikander, faced another death of a loved one, I desperately wanted a moment of silence and reflection. Whilst the abrupt cuts to new scenes often reflected the expectations of an emotionally restrictive Edwardian society, it didn’t suit a film that spent a lot of time languishing in visuals that it could have given over to Vikander’s performance. The film also, at times, under-estimates its audience; in a World War One period film about war, where the trailer talks about war, and the synopsis, and literally every review of it ever, discusses war, it was absolutely unnecessary to literally put the word ‘war’ in giant capital letters on the screen, surrounded by heavy-handed lashings of patriotism.
Where the film was let down somewhat in visuals, the acting was spectacular. The cast was brimming with brilliant female actresses, each who were given small moments where they could excel. There are too many to name, but Hayley Atwell was (as usual) a joy to watch, and Joana Scanlan added some much-needed levity to the film. Alicia Vikander truly shone, however; she communicated a gritty, frustrated passion that wasn’t quite met by her co-star, Kit Harrington, who gave an average performance. Vikander more than made up for it, giving at least as good a performance as Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything.
It did have some gorgeous moments; towards the end of the film, we see settings from the film that were previously full of life and passion – not just Vera’s passion, but her brother’s, her friend’s, her fiancé’s – desolately empty. Kent also lets his audience fully inhabit Vera’s perspective, occasionally flickering to moments of her memory, sometimes matching eye lines between characters, to create a film that interweaved past and present.
It’s just a shame the film wasn’t fractionally better. Considering the story, subject matter and Vikander’s stunning performance, I wanted it to be perfect – but giving it to a first time director, whilst ambitious, was perhaps a mistake. It may have been better formatted as a mini-series – a form Kent has plenty of experience directing – better suiting the pacing of a story that ultimately struggled to ratchet up the tension and create a climactic point for the narrative. Under more experienced hands, whilst utilising the same, distinctive visual style, I could see it winning BAFTAs at least. Even with its mistakes, the film far out-shone the perfunctory, spectacularly average The Imitation Game. Vikander deserves recognition for a flawless performance, and I would recommend going to see Testament of Youth if only to see her bring Vera’s story to life. The film does a lot to subvert your expectations considering the slew of dull period films, telling a story of romance that’s ultimately tragic, bitter-sweet and grittily passionate in turn.
To book tickets to see Testament of Youth at York City Screen Picturehouse, go here