Dir.: James Kent; Writers: Juliette Towhidi from the original book by Vera Britain
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Emma Watson, Dominic West, Hayley Atwell
UK 2014, 130 min. Drama
Based on Vera Brittain’s well-known wartime memoir of the name, TESTAMENT OF YOUTH is a study of loss and change. Not only the loss of a whole generation of young men in the First World War, but the loss of identity of the British middle classes and their sheltered existence of innocence and naivety. Standards, cultural ambitions and their belief in slow progress were rocked to the core and shattered in the trenches and mass slaughter in France. What arose, like a phoenix from the ashes, was the advent of feminism; the slow emancipation of women.
In James Kent’s excellent screen adaptation, Vera Brittain (a spirited Alicia Vikander) embodies both loss and change. We first see her in peace time, at the family home in Yorkshire. Her parents (Emily Watson and Dominic West) can hardly cope with their rebellious daughter, whose goal is to study literature in Oxford. Her father tries to placate her with the gift of a piano, but in vain, Vera wants it all. Supported by her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), and his friend Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington), she finally gets the parental consent and passes her entrance-examine at Somerville College Oxford. When war arrives, her father does not want Edward to serve, but Vera defends the right of her brother to fulfil his patriotic duty. Having fallen in love with Roland, who writes poetry like herself, Vera says goodbye twice. When the two men come home from the front for a short holiday, the strain is obvious. The difference between the war slogans and the traumatic reality in the trenches is enormous. Vera can’t stand the sedate life in Oxford anymore, and enrols as a nurse. In France, she saves the life of her brother, and after her mother has a nervous breakdown, she meets Roland again and they promise to marry when he comes home.
Being a BBC co-production, technical values, particularly production design and camera are in reliable hands. Yorkshire is as magnificent as the trenches are grim and the field hospitals are awash with the blood of carnage. Oxford looks spectacular with its dreamy spires gently tracing the skyline, and the Brittain’s mansion is exquisite. We have seen all this before but the reason to see this version is Alicia Vikander, who storms through the film like stick of dynamite, lifting the conventional goings to another level. Her resistance is as heartfelt as her mourning, her anger fired by indignance and ambition. She is well supported by Harington’s Roland Leighton, a sensitive poet and brave soldier, the epitome of the dashing hero of his era. Emily Watson is moving as the classic matriarch. TESTAMENT OF YOUTH is a true memoir of death on the battlefields and the last breath of an era. MT
ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 16 JANUARY 2015