Rebecca Coates reviews the war-time period drama Testament of Youth
In the wake of the centenary of the World War 2 we have been hit by myriad of images, of stories, and countless reminders of the generation that was lost. Testament of Youth, based on the autobiography by Vera Brittain, follows the transition from excited patriotism to disillusioned terror and heartache that accompanied the outbreak of war. It embodies the progression of a country in the lives of a group of young friends, and a love story cut tragically short.
The film opens with the Armistice Day celebrations, a stumbling and distressed Vera (Alicia Vikander) at odds with the whirling joy around her. She finds quiet in a church, and we are taken back to four years earlier, before the start of the war. The slow pace of her initial flirtations with Roland (Kit Harington) rapidly fall away, the world becoming increasingly fast-paced as it rapidly begins to spin out of control.
Testament of Youth is a BBC Films production, and the filmmaking style is very much in the vein of their television period dramas, but this unadorned style fits with Vera’s original words. The abundance of naturalistic, hand-held close-ups gives a sense of the deeply personal nature of her autobiography, and the immediacy of film means those words are brought to life anew, giving them additional impact.
Despite the 12A certificate the film does not shy away from the gruesome side of battle – it is clearly shown as Vera tends wounded soldiers mere miles behind the front line. Vikander is quietly impressive throughout, with her struggle between pain and resilience clear, and her later breakdowns are all the more shocking and affecting due to this contrast. As the train carrying Roland pulls away she wears the look of a woman who realises her life will never be the same – a brilliant moment of understated acting. There are moments of levity, with many coming from Colin Morgan, who excels as the kind-hearted Victor.
As with any historical drama, especially one where events are of such common knowledge, there is a strong sense of dramatic irony throughout the film, which is only increased for those who have read Brittain’s autobiography. When Roland and Vera grasp each other and promise that there will be “no more fear” there is an audible intake of breath in the audience as they guess the tragedy that is to come. Although this is a generational struggle transformed into an individual one, there are moments where the full scope of the impact is felt.
Testament of Youth flashes between Vera’s past and present, demonstrating what could and should have been, with the ending repeating the beginning. We see the Armistice Day Celebrations again, except now we feel the weight of all that has happened. Although the very ending is perhaps a little overblown – Vera’s heartfelt plea for new beginnings in the previous scene replace any need for a cliché cleansing scene – these cries of “it’s over” are a powerful reminder that, despite the end of the war, the repercussions would last a lifetime.
Featured image credit: Testament of Youth. Photograph: PR