Testament of Youth

Review by Emma Simmonds @EmmaSimmonds

Directed by

James Kent

Starring

Alicia Vikander Kit Harington Taron Egerton

Anticipation.

Seems overwhelmingly... nice.

Enjoyment.

Beautiful and moving when it should be devastatingly, unforgettably upsetting.

In Retrospect.

Heartbreak porn and little more.

Kit Harrington and Alicia Vikander do the best to lift this underwhelming British heritage drama.

Those who think they don’t make ’em like they used to may well enjoy James Kent’s Testament of Youth. That’s if your idea of how they used to make ’em equates to prettily packaged misery and stiff-upper-lipped loss. Based on a memoir by Vera Brittain, this is the debut feature of a seasoned TV director who unambitiously pitches this biopic at the Downton Abbey set rather than those more likely to take full heed of a trailblazing homegrown heroine.

Brittain was a nurse during World War One and later a celebrated writer and pacifist whose wartime experiences were published in the eponymous 1933 autobiography. Kent’s film portrays Vera (Alicia Vikander) as a spirited gal living through a stifling time, someone who rejects a life of after-dinner piano playing and domesticity. She doesn’t just dream of becoming an Oxford scholar, but is stubborn and talented enough to make it happen. With the support of her beloved brother Edward (Taron Egerton) she successfully petitions her father (Dominic West) to allow her to sit the Oxford entrance exam. When war intervenes, however, the hopes of Vera and those around her are cruelly dashed.

Vikander makes for a distractingly exotic, waif-like heroine; her radiance might jar when she’s up to her neck in the horrors of war but she’s convincingly wilful and ably inspires respect and empathy. As love interest Roland, Game of Thrones star Kit Harington does his earnest, floppy-haired thing, yet he’s less adept at communicating his character’s deteriorating, battle-scarred psyche.

It might err towards the soft-focus, but Rob Hardy’s cinematography is stunning, while Consolata Boyle’s costume design consistently impresses too. The scale of Vera’s personal tragedy is so great that it’s impossible not to be moved, especially given how clueless everyone is going into the war (‘The papers are saying it’ll be short and fast’), and it’s heartbreaking to watch the boys line up eagerly, like lambs to the slaughter.

But Kent applies such smothering nostalgia that the rawness and true depth of emotion struggle to break through. His film also tends toward the awkwardly twee – for example when Hayley Atwell turns up as a fellow nurse, her performance so epitomises the expression ‘jolly hockey sticks’ – it wouldn’t be a shock if she came right out and said it.

This is a suffocatingly sad story but Kent’s staunch commitment to palatability means it’s all too carefully controlled. We finally see Vera rage at the futility of war and the bloody, agonising, anonymous deaths it incurs in a passionate polemic at the close, but by then it’s too late. Playing things so safe means that Testament of Youth feels a touch too TV-at-teatime; it prioritises its status as respectable heritage drama over showing the reality of combat and the ugliness of extreme emotion. Even if it would not have been totally appropriate to give us blood-and-guts realism, this remarkable woman deserved a more fearless approach.

Published 15 Jan 2014

Tags: Alicia Vikander James Kent Kit Harington Taron Egerton

Anticipation.

Seems overwhelmingly... nice.

Enjoyment.

Beautiful and moving when it should be devastatingly, unforgettably upsetting.

In Retrospect.

Heartbreak porn and little more.

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