At the beginning of James Kent’s Testament of Youth the Armistice has been signed and World War I is ending. Though our protagonist, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) isn’t celebrating. As she makes her way through crowded London streets, she looks beaten down and dazed. By this point, the war has taken everything from her. In real life, Brittain became a Pacifist after experiencing the horrors of The Great War first-hand. Based on her memoir of the same name, Testament of Youth carries a strong anti-war message that Kent handles with subtlety and compassion. He slowly easing into Brittain’s tale, instead of starting with suffering right away. Keeping the focus squarely on Vera and her evolution as a character, he crafts a delicate and understanding biopic worthy of mild celebration.
As his film opens, Kent flashes back in time to before the war; a simpler time, a better time. Decadent cinematography from Rob Hardy is lush and sparkling, wringing the beauty of spa town Buxton where Vera lives with her parents and older brother Edward (Taron Egerton). Here, she lives a privileged but uneventful life. Outside Edward, she has no companionship. Most of the time she’s cooped up in the house, writing (non-slam) poetry and dreaming of a better life. These initial twenty minutes of Kent’s saga detail Vera’s resistance to the conventional roles women of her time were forced into and her desire to stand out. As one might have sussed out, Brittain was also a noted feminist. Her petite figure makes her appear fragile and even weak on the outside, but on the inside, she’s a well of audacious and resilient characterisitcs. She wants to be schooled in Oxford, not settle down and get married.
Although, things change rather quickly when Edward brings home school chap Roland, (Kit Harrington) a fellow poet and dreamer. Before long, lofty sparks begin to fly between the two dazed protagonists like flint off magnesium. On the film’s theatrical poster, their relationship is front and center. A common man-and-woman-in-love tease. This is misleading. Not only is Testament of Youth not a romance film, but the Roland-Vera relationship is probably the least interesting aspect. Further, the way Kent handles it partly undermines Vera’s character.
She ends up getting into Oxford but when Roland goes off to war, she drops out to become a war nurse in London. Now, it’s not unreasonable that someone would drop of out of school to help the war effort but in the movie we’re given the impression that Vera drops out primarily because of Roland; in that, if she wasn’t involved with him, she would have stayed at Oxford. A decision like this doesn’t feel in line with the slightly stubborn, independent-minded Vera we were introduced to in the beginning. While Roland is certainly dashing and handsome, their relationship doesn’t have enough substance for us to believe Vera would give up her hard fought spot at Oxford to stand by his battle-bashed side.
Yet, in the long run, Testament of Youth isn’t about their relationship. Again, it’s much more a character study— one that shows Vera’s metamorphsis from a privileged naïve girl living in Buxton to a hardened, world-weary survivor of the war. As we later find out, her relationship with Roland primarily serves as the first stop in her loss of innocence. Those looking for a breezy period romance will be sorely let down. The second half of the picture serves up a harsh dose of wartime reality– effectively shattering the pretty upbeat tone that Kent delivers with the first portion. Even Hardy’s cinematography transforms into something much greyer to reflect Kent’s bleak change of pace.
Kent, to his credit, handles this transition with restraint. Instead of bombarding us with wartime suffering right away, he makes time a resource. At first, the changes are small; Roland and Vera continue their happy, passionate romance while newspaper headlines announcing Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination warn us of impending doom. When Vera receives some tragic news over the telephone, Kent lets the scene play out in dreadful, stomach churning silence as Vera goes into shock. The movie avoids melodrama at all costs, making the picture’s shift in tone more believable.
Except for occasional flashes showing the depleted, muddied faces of soldiers on the front, we experience the wartime horrors from Vera’s point of view as she works in the overcrowded, disgusting hospitals. Kent doesn’t shy away from showing us the gruesome, ugly costs of war—a long shot showing Vera walking around a large field littered with injured soldiers is as overwhelming as it is devastating. At the same time, because of Kent’s gradual and subtle approach, the movie never feels exploitative. Its anti-war message doesn’t come across as heavy-handed. Rather, the brutal scenes of inimitable suffering become all the more resonant.
Testament of Youth stumbles at a few junctions along the way but it still packs quite an emotional punch. Further, it’s all anchored in a magnificent performance from Vikander – chalking up her second fantastic performance of the year behind her 2015 debut in Ex Machina [review here]. As Vera, she expresses a wide range of emotions over the course of the film, churning out a truly well-rounded, three-dimensional human being. When Vera becomes an outspoken opponent of war, we believe it because her transformation has been captured with so much depth and detail. By the end we’re just as emotionally drained and dazed by the war as she is.