The film follows a period of about 6 years of Vera Brittain’s life and it takes its’ name from that of her best selling memoir. The film starts at an end of sorts – Armistice Day 1918 and it also makes a beginning for the 24 year old Vera in her life as a lifelong and vocal pacifist.
Alicia Vikander is outstanding in the lead role of Vera Brittain and manages to convey that mixture of heady youthful stubbornness and a very spirited Vera in Edwardian Britain where women were expected to look pretty, play piano and marry well. We follow Vera’s growth and her battles to be treated equally as her beloved brother Edward to try to gain a place at Oxford, and then to drop out to nurse the wounded. The men in her life, the already mentioned brother Edward, played by Taron Egerton, and the complicity between the actors translates beautifully on screen. Roland Leighton, Vera’s first love and the romantic love that conquers her heart is played by Kit Harington who gives a nuanced performance as the alpha male Roland. The other major male figure is Victor played by Colin Morgan. The first part of the film is shot in soft focus capturing the youthful and innocent exuberance of the main characters and as the tragedy and loss mounts the focus becomes clearer.
James Kent who has a documentary film background directs this film. This experience is never more evident than in the war scenes and the exceptionally haunting scene where Vera consumed by grief slips off her shoes and sinks into the Yorkshire mud to feel what those whom she has loved and lost must have felt as they lay dying in the trenches.
The screenwriter, Juliette Towhidi explained in an interview that whilst Vera Brittain’s memoir provided the DNA for the screenplay: “You don’t get to hide behind chronology, necessarily; you want to be true to the essence of something. In order to capture that essence, sometimes you have to play with facts a bit.” This was done in the scenes where Vera is shown nursing her brother in France when in reality she nursed him in London after he was injured fighting in France. However, the changes were made to give coherence to the story.
Despite exceptional performances, the film remains a biopic by numbers film: overcoming battles small and large, love, loss and then finding her voice and becoming the great icon of the 20th century. There are no secrets in the film – all the moments of tragedy and passion are self-evident before the scene appears on screen and the actors have uttered their lines. The saccharine ladened soundtrack doesn’t help matters either. Yet, the power of the film lies in how it makes you feel and the questions it raises: love and loss, the futility of war, speaking up even if the opinion is an unpopular one and 100 years after the Great War have we in fact learnt anything?
Those who enjoy a biopic will enjoy this film. Also, those who like a good period drama – the attention to detail and faithful recreation of Edwardian Britain will delight and educate in equal measure.
Testament of Youth opens in cinemas everywhere this Friday 16 January with a running time of 130 minutes.
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