As significant world events in our history approach an anniversary, films ready to dramatise and document said events invariably follow. It would feel almost remiss, then, to have arrived at the centenary of the First World War without an adaptation of Vera Mary Brittain’s seminal first instalment of memoirs, Testament of Youth, published in 1933. Brittain’s account of the personal damages of the war as well as its wider impact on society – particularly on the lives of the women who stayed at home as they waved goodbye to husbands, brothers, lovers, friends, who would never return to them – makes it an ideal candidate for a film adaptation.
Loss is the central theme of James Kent’s Testament of Youth and it permeates almost every facet of the narrative. Kent occasionally hints at loss on a grander scale, for instance, in a stirring early scene in which Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) flicks through seemingly endless pages of a newspaper detailing all of the casualties in the war thus far. Kent chooses, instead, to focus predominantly on the personal series of losses of Vera. Testament of Youth begins in pre-war Britain as Vera battles her parents (Emily Watson and Dominic West) for the opportunity to take the Oxford exam. War is eventually declared – Vera’s brother (Taron Egerton) and soon-to-be-love-of-her-life, Roland Leighton (Kit Harington), enlist and Vera gives up her degree at Oxford to become a nurse first in Britain and eventually in France.
It is a strong cast of performers lead by a terrific turn by Alicia Vikander as the obstinate Vera Brittain. In period dramas, especially any dealing with subject matter such as this, it would be easy for the film to have been drowned in cloying sentimentality. It is perhaps a testament to James Kent’s assured directing and particularly Vikander’s dignified portrayal that even towards the end when the bad news coming Vera Brittain’s way appears ceaseless, the film never feels emotionally manipulative or gratuitous.
Visually, Testament of Youth is pretty enough but in an almost perfunctory sort of way. The early countryside and middle-class architecture are suitably verdant and painterly, the scenes of war in the hospitals and trenches appropriately grim. Similarly, the orchestral score underpinning most of the film’s important sequences is never obtrusive but neither is it particularly rousing or memorable.
In fact, that is ultimately Testament of Youth’s biggest problem: it is a very safe effort, almost too cautious for large stretches of its fairly bloated 130 minute runtime. James Kent – in his first full feature film – appears constrained by the looming shadow of the source material. Perhaps the most memorable part of the film is also the only notable moment in which Kent demonstrates real creative flair – a sequence involving a crane shot that begins intimately following Vera Brittain through the hospital camp; finishing with an elegant high-angle reveal of a field covered in dead and injured soldiers as Brittain is enveloped by the misery, looking very small and disillusioned indeed.
Testament of Youth is a solid, tasteful, but ultimately unadventurous and dry account of an extraordinary woman’s life during the war. (5)