Testament of Youth

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Testament of Youth
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) is the pampered daughter of a well-to-do family living outside of London. She takes her exams to enter Oxford University and is accepted. Her idyllic life will come to a screeching halt when the news comes of the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand and the start of the Great War. Her life, and the lives of everyone around her, will change dramatically in “Testament of Youth.”

Long-time TV director James Kent makes his feature film debut with a stunning BANG. “Testament of Youth” is based on the memoirs of the same name by Vera Brittain and adapted by Juliette Towhidi. The story begins in a pre-WWI setting with strong-minded Vera spending a day in the country with her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and their friend Victor (Colin Morgan). The most serious thing in her life is getting her father to agree to send her to college. That changes with the fateful assassination in Sarajevo.

But, the war has not started just yet and the patriotic fervor grips the nation, with young men crowding the recruitment offices to take part in what promises to be “a fast war and a quick end.” Time will prove them, and their leaders forcing the conflict, to be very wrong. When Edward, Victor and their best friend Roland (Kit Harrington), who has an eye for Vera, enlist and head off to the front, Vera realizes that she cannot just go to school and turn a blind eye to the war. She volunteers to be a nurse’s assistant so she can do something to help her brother and friends, even if it is from a distance.

“Testament of Youth” is a stirring anti-war film as told through the eyes of Vera Brittain. Casting Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as the vivacious and intelligent proves to be a showcase that should easily propel her to the A-list; she is that riveting in her portrayal of Vera. It also helps that the ballet-dancer-turned-actress is a clothes horse that looks great in the plethora of gorgeous costumes by designer Consolata Boyle – as does everyone else in the film, but especially Vikander.

The supporting cast is terrific and every character is given full dimension and all garner sympathy. There is an arc to every character as we first see the naiveté of youth as the news of war spreads and patriotic fever takes hold of the country. But, that naïve way of thinking soon changes as the horrors of war become evident as the nation is bled of its young men.

“Testament of Youth” is an excellent depiction of the age as the world goes from peace to an all consuming war that would last for over four years. The production, from top to bottom, is accurate in setting, costuming and puts us in that terrible time. Not bad for a newcomer to feature films. I give it an A.

In 1914, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander, "Ex Machina") wanted nothing more than to study at Oxford alongside her brother Edward (Taron Egerton, "Kingsman: The Secret Service") and his friends.  Her brother convinced their parents to let her go, but, once there, she was alone, her fiance and fellow aspiring writer Roland Leighton (Kit Harington, "Pompeii") and brother having both left for the front.  Discontent with her dream now that her young men were fighting, Vera left her studies to follow them onto the battlefield as a nurse, later describing her experiences and the futility of war in her memoir "Testament of Youth."

Vera, the lone non-celebrant amidst London throngs on Armistice Day in 1918, seeks refuge in a Church and gets lost in Francis Danby's Biblical painting The Deluge, imagining herself drowning in its depths.  British television director James Kent and screenwriter Juliette Towhidi ("Calendar Girls") use the watery imagery to return us to happier times, as Vera swims near her home accompanied by Edward and their friend Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan, TV's 'Merlin') whom Ted teases for his obvious crush on his sister.   Another friend, Roland, arrives in time to overhear Vera announcing her intentions to never marry, and the four travel 'the white ribbon' to the water again, a scene so full of innocence and hope we know it is doomed.

Kent has fashioned a beautiful period production which follows an early feminist who becomes an outspoken pacifist at the close of WWI.  Swedish actress Vikander's star has been rising on a global scale, stepping into this project when Saoirse Ronan had to back out, and she is perfect as the young Englishwoman constrained by the countryside and her conservative parents (Dominic West, Showtime's 'The Affair' and Emily Watson, "Breaking the Waves"). Vikander plays her as a serious-minded youth who bucks against tradition then finds herself open to romance when she meets someone interested in her mind.  She's no shrinking violet, as can be seen when she dismissed as a debutante by Somerville College's Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson, "Dance with a Stranger"), then later when she takes it upon herself to make a substitution for the admittance exam's unanticipated Latin essay (she writes in German, a language which will prove more useful).

She finds additional inner strength when, after having returned her brother's favor by convincing dad to let him enlist, she first humbles herself to work at London General hospital under the unsentimental leadership of Sister Jones (Niamh Cusack, "Five Minutes of Heaven").  After righting the emotional turmoil of Roland on a weekend leave, she learns of his death on what was meant to be her wedding day (an appropriate spot to stop and marvel at the finds and creations of costume designer Consolata Boyle ("The Queen," "The Iron Lady"), whose exquisite work bears the stamp of hand crafting) and, determined to save the rest, travels to Étaples in France where the horrors are grimmer but the administration of Sister Milroy (Hayley Atwell, "Captain America: The First Avenger") kinder.  At first shocked to discover she'll be ministering to Germans, Vera has trouble adjusting to the fact that she's working to save men her brother is trying to kill, then realizes war's utter folly as she eases a young man (Adam Ganne, "Fury") into death masquerading as his German sweetheart.  It's an incredibly moving scene and among the most powerful anti-war messages to flicker across a screen.

There are other moments that linger as well - Victor's emotional bravery in the face of Vera's sympathy, the unapologetic giggling following a kiss caught by formidable chaperone Aunt Belle (Joanna Scanlan, "The Invisible Woman"), the way Vera braces Miss Lorimer after handing her a telegram, Vera's frustrated resignation with her sheltered mother's inability to cope.  The film wobbles a bit in the last stretch, the adaptation, which concludes years earlier than the memoir, overstuffing the last act.  The character of Geoffrey Thurlow (Jonathan Bailey, BBCA's 'Broadchurch') suddenly becomes prominent while important ally Winifred Holtby (Alexandra Roach, "One Chance") is introduced as a motivating force.  Future husband George Catlin (Henry Garrett, "Red Tails"), first met in hospital on the arm of a convalescent nurse (Emily Bevan, BBCA's 'In the Flesh'), is the officer who provides a stage for Vera's unpopular politics.

The film is often breathtaking, cinematographer Rob Hardy ("The Invisible Woman") contrasting sunlit pastels with far darker tones as the war sets in (as the peaches and cream of Vikander's wardrobe gives way to burgundies and browns).  Hardy fails to expand the obviously economical French set, however, his attempt at a "Gone With the Wind" homage hamstrung.  For his conclusion, Kent returns to the placid waters of his film's earlier days, thoughts of drowning replaced by renewal and rebirth.

Grade:  B
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