Testament of Youth begins with a fleeting glimpse of the crowded streets of England on Armistice Day in 1918. Amidst the celebrations, we catch sight of the pained visage of Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander). Overwhelmed by the crowd, she seeks refuge in a nearby church and, finding solitude in an alcove, loses herself in a painting of a ship in distress amidst dark and wild seas. The turmoil depicted in the canvas seems far more recognisable to her than the palpable joy of the scenes in the streets.
Travelling back in time to calmer times and waters, to a time immediately before the Great War, we find Vera swimming in an idyllic lake setting with her brother, Ed (Taron Egerton), and one of his friends – as well as a suitor for Vera’s affections – Victor (Colin Morgan). On the cusp of adulthood and enjoying a blissful summer at the Brittains’ country home, the playful trio are filled with a sense of optimism at the years that lie ahead. For Vera’s part, she is pursuing her studies for the entrance exam to Oxford despite some resistance from her father (Dominic West) and, some initial scepticism of her own aside, a burgeoning romance with the like-minded Roland (Kit Harington). She is independent, intelligent and seemingly in control of her destiny. Then, in a moment, Britain joins the War and everything changes.
Testament of Youth ably conveys the enormity of the tragedy of the War for Vera’s generation, a conflict that claimed an unfathomable amount of lives and scarred those of all who survived it. Most importantly, based on a 1933 memoir of the same name, the film shines a light on the experience of the conflict from the perspective of a young woman who, when the young men in her life departed for the battlefields, was forced to grapple with a sense of being consigned to the sidelines of a conflict that was slowly but surely ravaging her life and the lives of her loved ones. For the film’s Vera, abandoning her studies to volunteer as a nurse in the military served to address that pervasive sense of helplessness only partially, for it also brought her closer to the desolation of the conflict in a way that merely reinforced the desperate meaninglessness of the suffering caused by the War. Only referred to in passing in the film, it is worth noting that these experiences inspired real life’s Brittain to become one of her generation’s leading pacifists.
Unfortunately, the potency and historical significance of the film’s story are qualities undermined by a screenplay that is far too earnest and lacking in subtlety. The film’s uniformly well-meaning characters deliver sculpted lines that frequently ring false and, occasionally, some that need not be delivered at all. Other contrivances, such as the tired trope of an overweight aunt acting as Vera and Roland’s chaperone, do not help matters. These are disappointing aspects of a film that is otherwise sumptuously produced. In particular, the soft tones and textures of Rob Hardy’s cinematography, often featuring gorgeous landscapes, are a highlight.
Released here just days before the 100th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, Testament of Youth represents an admirable attempt to commemorate the sacrifices and suffering of Vera’s generation in England during the same conflict, albeit that the film’s weaknesses emphasise the considerable challenges in bringing the Great War to life.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 129 minutes
Testament of Youth is screening in Australian cinemas now, through Transmission Films