Arts Review, Movies

Testament of Youth

Testament of Youth featured image

James Kent, director
Juliette Towhidi, script based on the memoir by Vera Brittain
Starring: Alicia Vikander (Vera Brittain), Kit Harington (Roland Leighton), Taron Egerton (Edward Brittain), Colin Morgan (Victor), Jonathan Bailey (Geoffrey), Dominic West (Mr. Brittain), Emily Watson (Mrs. Brittain), Miranda Richardson (Miss Lorimer), Alexandra Roach (Winifred Holtby)

In the glorious spring and summer of 1914, just before the outbreak of World War One, the young and beautiful Vera Brittain finds romance with Roland Leighton, an Oxford student who is a close friend of her brother, Edward. Roland fancies himself a poet and Vera shares that ambition. The three spend innocent times together with their friends Victor and Geoffrey on the grounds of the Brittain estate. Vera’s main concern is to get into Oxford, still a very difficult thing for a girl to do in those days.

In the event, she does get accepted and all is marvellous for a very brief time. But then the Guns of August start shooting and the long European peace is suddenly at an end. World War One begins—and the first of the nightmarish wars of the 20th century falls all too quickly upon Vera, her friends and nearly everyone else in Europe, the British and French Empires and North America.

Testament of Youth
is a faithful dramatization of Vera Brittain’s acclaimed memoir, which was published in 1933 and hasn’t gone out of print since. In the style that has made the BBC widely recognised throughout the world, this new film recaptures the sets, costumes, language and mannerisms of the time. The frames of the shots are carefully composed to catch the dramatic beats of each scene as Vera discovers the harsh reality of war. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Testament of Youth is how few scenes of the Western Front are shown. The assumption is that we’ve all seen enough gory footage of the First World War to understand what kind of hell Vera’s brother and friends would endure on the battlefield.

The famous restraint that Brits often bring to television and film drama is appropriate for a depiction of the War as seen through the eyes of a very intelligent young woman who gave up her place at Oxford to work as a nurse in France during some of the worst times of the War. The narrative—all too true—shows the deaths and maiming of the young men and the loss of innocence of the women who nursed the soldiers—and too often buried them.

The performances in Testament of Youth are first rate. Particularly fine are Alicia Vikander as Vera and Kit Harington as her doomed fiancé. The film ends on a scene after the war in which Vera declares her change in attitude from a naïve advocate of imperial Britain and its military might to a dedicated pacifist. Her memoir, a best seller in the ‘30s, was still on bookshelves as the Second World War broke out—to be followed by the Korean War and so many brutal conflicts since. 101 years later, one can only ask: what have we learned?

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Good Day GTA.

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