DIR: James Kent • WRI: Juliette Towhidi • PRO: Rosie Alison, David Heyman • DOP: Rob Hardy • ED: Lucia Zucchetti • DES: Jon Henson • MUS: Max Richter • CAST: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Dominic West, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Taron Egerton
Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth served as a searing and intensely moving account about the emotional scars World War I left on an entire generation. James Kent’s film adaptation of said memoir serves as a visually stunning but at times sludgy representation of its source material. Though not lacking in talent or feeling, the film suffers from an uneven distribution of focus and relies too much on its central romance to wrangle the viewer’s emotions.
We begin on Armistice Day 1918 as our protagonist, Vera, wanders aimlessly through the celebrating crowds before flashing back four years prior to the summer of 1914, when war was just over the horizon. A highly intelligent young woman, Vera dreams, not of marriage, but of studying in Oxford and becoming a professional writer cos’ she’s a strong independent woman who don’t need no man! OK, snarkiness aside, Swedish new-comer Alicia Vikander does make for a compelling and believable (if, yes, slightly typical) heroine. There are few films focused on the women who kept things running behind the scenes during wartime and it undoubtedly makes for a refreshing change. The Brittain’s family home settled in the heart of Derbyshire makes for a lush and dream-like setting. The apple of Vera’s eye is her younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton), whose bookish school friend Roland Leighton (Kit Harington) makes a deep impression on our protagonist. Drawn together by their mutual love of poetry, Vera and Roland’s relationship blossoms from one of affection to true love.
The war, of course, is always at the forefront of the film, yet Kent never bogs down the viewers with too many facts, giving us just enough information so we know where we are at any given moment. It’s a bitter sweet experience watching this idealistic young couple’s relationship evolve as we know the devastation that inevitably awaits them. The young men who frolic and laugh together on screen in the film’s opening moments will soon be marching to their deaths in France. As a result, there’s a lingering poignancy to every frame, an extra layer of meaning behind each scene. Though the film focuses mainly on those these young men left behind, the impact of their deaths is more intimately felt. For every shot of a wounded soldier lying in the mud there is a shot of a father’s tears or nurse’s blood splattered apron. Needless to say, emotion runs high throughout the duration of the film.
That said, some of this emotion, namely Vera and Roland’s romance, feels acutely overwrought. Both Harington and Vikander deliver solid performances but Kent can’t resist injecting unnecessary soppiness into their relationship with highly stylised sequences and clichés- the heroine longing touching places of her face and body were the hero touched her, close-up shots of a specific part of the love interest’s features, etc. Their relationship does at least feel genuine but the director insists on forcing it down the viewer’s throats. The film’s focus is also divided a little awkwardly: the first half is dedicated entirely to one relationship, the other half to the overall horrors of war and it is the latter that is far more impactful as a piece of cinema. Though moving, the relationship of two individuals simply does not match the agonizing suffering of an entire people. Kent pays homage to many of cinema’s greatest war epics in a number of carefully chosen shots, deciding to capture the aftermath of the battles rather than the battles themselves. There’s no ‘us vs. them’ dynamic here; we feel as much for the German soldiers as we do for the British ones, giving the film a more humanistic feel.
There’s an echoey sense of loss about the First World War that still reverberates to this day; a sense of loss for the unrealised potential of the young men who gave their lives and for mothers, fathers, wives, and friends who were left in the aftermath. It’s this undefinable pang of sadness that Testament of Youth manages to encapsulate so well. You just have to sit through forty minutes of romantic slush to get to that.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Testament of Youth is released 16th January 2015.