On the Silver Screen – Testament of Youth
Testament of Youth is based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain and chronicles her experiences from before World War I broke out to after peace was declared.
Alicia Vikander plays the central role and does a fantastic job. She brings a real sense of intelligence, integrity and confidence to Vera Brittain throughout the film. It’s clear that she was always sure of herself and very single minded when it came to acting on her decisions. Apparently Vera was a woman so far ahead of her time in terms of her ambitions as she was more concerned with getting an education and a career rather than a husband. Her breaching of gender expectations causes something of a headache for her father (Dominic West) who just wants a traditionally minded daughter.
I really liked the family dynamic in this film as it felt real. Even though Vera’s parents opposed her ambitions they never actively discourage her -after some convincing anyway- from pursuing her dreams. Her relationship with her family forms one of the pillars of this film and is mostly shown through her relationship with her brother Edward (Taron Egerton). The film does touch on her connection to her parents but most of the insight into her family life comes from here. Vera is the older sibling and feels very protective of her younger brother. Many of the scenes show genuine affection between the siblings and make up many of the strongest moments.
Another pillar of the film is Vera’s relationship with her fiancé Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington). Harrington does a fantastic job playing this character and has a lot of chemistry with Vikander. Both actors seem like a genuine couple in love with a very real connection. There is less time devoted to developing Roland individually but it makes sense given that the story is from Vera’s perspective so the audience only sees Roland through her eyes.
I really liked how the film handled the emotional separation aspect as heightened by the distance between them. Vera’s strength of character means that she gets on with it and makes the best of that situation but there are plenty of examples of cracks in her armour and real vulnerability. Vikander manages to make Vera’s complex emotional states work together in a really effective way making her a fully formed person.
The relationship does suffer from poor development as there are only a handful of scenes devoted to them growing closer which does make the progression seem a little less than organic. Much of the relationship happens off screen which does lessen the effectiveness somewhat.
Personal tragedy is a central theme of this film. Vera’s story is filled with the tragedy of multiple personal losses. Throughout the course of the film Vera loses her fiancé and her brother to the War. The film does a great job of reminding the audience of the scope of this tragedy as she is only one example of countless others on both sides who are going through the same thing. Vera feels compelled to do what she can to help out as she feels helpless with the men going off to fight while the women have to stay behind and worry. Her proactive personality prevents her from simply sitting on her hands and waiting for news.
The scenes of her volunteering as a nurse are pretty gruesome. She sees some really horrible things and the audience experiences them with her. The horrific injuries sustained by soldiers during World War I are well documented but seeing them recreated in exquisite detail is more than a little shocking. Vera’s humanity is reinforced through several instances of it getting a little too much for her to handle.
I really liked how this film shows the War from the sidelines. The trenches are only shown in brief cutaways or dreamlike sequences accompanying poems written by soldiers at the front. This gives us a perspective on the War through Vera’s imagination most of the time. There are some scenes that show the beauty that came after the death with some references to flowers growing on the sites of battles and the effect the sunlight has on the waterlogged battle damaged landscape. Vera has a creative mind so it makes sense that she would see the beauty here but she isn’t ignorant to the human cost associated with it. The audience is given an artistic yet balanced view of the War through Vera’s experience which makes it interesting and memorable.
In some cases the pacing of the film is a little clunky. Many of the scenes drag on longer than they should and there is some repetition of information that is already more than clear. With some tighter editing the film could have been a streamlined experience that hits all the right beats succinctly.
I haven’t read the book in question but as far as I can tell it’s a very inspiring story as told by a really remarkable individual so it’s definitely worthy of an adaptation.
This film mostly does this story justice through some really powerful dramatic performances from the lead actors and an interesting personal account of World War I as experienced by one person.
Alicia Vikander does an excellent job of bringing Vera Brittain to life with an emotionally complex performance taking the audience through the different relationships in her life and the effects her various tragedies have on her. It’s a very noteworthy performance and really remarkable to watch.
At times the film is marred by awkward pacing and repetition of ideas while other aspects seem to develop off screen. A tighter story could have been created with a lot more dramatic variety. In general the film feels a little too long so could have been more tightly edited.