Published in 1933, the first instalment of Vera Brittain’s memoirs went on to become one of the seminal first-hand writings on World War I, providing the framework for one woman’s harrowing, life-affirming coming of age story. Adapted here by Juliette Towhidi, Testament Of Youth finally makes it to the big screen, an emotionally stirring tale powered by fantastic performances that go a long way to do Brittain’s story justice.
Soon to be seen in just about everything, Alicia Vikander plays Brittain as the film tracks her personal growth against the backdrop of the great war. We first meet Vera on Armistice day 1918, framed in startling close up, casting a distraught figure amongst the jubilant crowds, before flashing back four years to uncover the source of her suffering. Her middle class, country house heritage is portrayed as both idyllic and suffocating for the comparatively precocious young Brittain, conveyed through the character’s indignation at being bought a piano by her traditionally-inclined parents (Dominic West, Emily Watson). Determined to study at Oxford against their wishes, this staunch ambition at the character’s core is well-established early on, her desire to outstrip the expectations of others never proving grating, but respectfully reflecting Brittain’s own admirable life choices. Against her greater judgement, Brittain becomes smitten with family friend Roland Leighton (Kit Harington), their romance preluding the outbreak of war, which also sees her brother Edward (newcomer Taron Egerton) and friend Victor (Colin Morgan) depart for the frontline. It’s Vera’s overwhelming personal investment which sees her postpone her long fought-for place at Oxford to volunteer as a wartime nurse, a decision that will lead her to confront much emotional hardship in her journey towards becoming a leader in the pacifist movement.
On paper, this may all sound like the stuff of gratingly familiar BBC TV movies of yore. Indeed, the film is produced by BBC films and also marks TV director James Kent’s first big-screen outing. Yet despite these trappings, Testament Of Youth‘s success lies largely in the palpable emotional heft of its material, grounded throughout with a sense of relatability by its outstanding central players. We’ve seen much of its ilk before, but unlike recent true-life drama Unbroken, Testament of Youth succeeds in its own right, making us care through consistently portraying Brittain as a rounded character. Promotional materials have largely focused on the love story at the film’s core, and despite a familiar arc – teary train station farewells, hillside love declarations – Vikander and Harington do a fine job of keeping us invested. Roland’s transition from prospective poet to PTSD sufferer is dealt with slightly mechanically, yet remains affecting thanks to Harington’s heartfelt performance, while a key scene in which Brittain forcefully refuses to allow their relationship to die provides a strong showcase for both actors. Testament‘s thematic concerns extend wider than this however, and Towhidi’s screenplay goes to great lengths in its attempt to provide a cohesive portrait of Brittain’s life during wartime. Vera’s steely resilience informs all of her relationships, yet it’s her empathy that develops tenfold through her first-hand experience of the tragedies of wartime.
Egerton brings charm and warmth to his scenes as Vera’s brother Edward, their relationship arguably as key to the narrative as the core love story, in which Harington gets to show off a softer, less brittle side than we’re used to seeing from his Game Of Thrones character. As Brittain’s parents, West and Watson are given slightly shorter shrift, though both make the most of their respective big-moments. Yet the film belongs to Vikander, expertly rendering Brittain’s development from her young bullishness towards an empathy for all of those affected by war. Vikander balances the character’s headstrong nature with an unabashed vulnerability, not least in the film’s quieter scenes with the central trio of male figures in her life, Roland, Edward, and Victor. Few will complain when she begins to appear in just about everything as 2015 progresses.