Director: James Kent
Writer: Juliette Towhidi
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Dominic West
Testament of Youth is a stunning yet devastatingly sorrowful biographic drama from director James Kent about the experiences of Vera Brittain, a young woman whose aspirations for an Oxford education are halted by the outbreak of the First World War. Serving as a voluntary nurse in London, Malta and France, the gruesome horrors of mass human loss transform her into one of the prominent pacifists of the twentieth century.
Swimming in lakes in the idyllic English countryside, Vera, played by the glorious Alicia Vikander, is caught in a beautiful but entirely stifling bourgeois lifestyle, with her parents more willing to purchase a grand piano than fund a year’s tuition at Oxford. Edward (Taron Egerton), her brother and champion, begs their father (Dominic West) to allow her to sit the entrance exam, appealing to his stiff-lipped sexism with the fact that women don’t achieve full degrees. Whilst preparing for the exam, Vera finds herself the object of affection from Roland (Kit Harington) and Victor (Colin Morgan) two of Edward’s dashing and genteel friends. With notes of poetry slipped under doors late at night, and soft glances which contain searing desire, Vera begins to soften towards the handsome Roland.
Vera’s opportunity to go to Oxford however is seemingly dashed as she fumbles with her lack of Latin, all under the critical gaze of a strict Sommerville mistress. Played wonderfully by Miranda Richardson, Mrs Lorimer, with her detached tone of distaste and constantly haughty face, is a stern enemy, but Vera’s headstrong desire for knowledge piques her interest. Receiving an acceptance letter, she starts her studies and her tentative romance with Roland blossoms through poetry laced love letters and days spent escaping their chaperone.
War meanwhile has been declared and Roland is quick to enlist, blinded by a sense of duty and testosterone-fuelled pride, he is sent to the Western front. Struck by the privilege of her education in the face of so much death, Vera volunteers as a nurse in London. Having heard she came from Oxford, she is flung into the goriest of jobs by the other nurses, which she accepts like a silent martyr. The film’s true sorrow begins when Roland returns from the trenches, clinging to his boyhood dreams of the heroism of war whilst so emotionally scarred he can barely face Vera. The two decide to be married the next time he is home on leave.
Director James Kent seems to lure us into a cruel sense of safety then holds us in fretful anticipation, as we know that at least one of Vera’s closest companions, Roland, Victor or Edward, will not be coming home. Scandinavian actress Alice Vikander triumphs as Vera, in a performance which is passionately expressed in an accent almost flawlessly delivered. Kent has created a beautifully haunting atmosphere that colours Vera’s recollection of the men in her life and her harrowing experience of loss, which Vikander portrays dazzlingly. There is also a strong suggestion of disillusionment at the end of the war. Harington is the ideal counterpart to Vera’s fierce independence, with his boyish charm and slightly effeminate face, but the supporting cast all deliver equally impressive performances as they are each stricken by death and heartache.
As the cinematography makes the film shimmer with sadness, the costumes ground it firmly in the time period, and Vera’s sorrow in her sweet white wedding dress seems to truly compound her suffering. Although Testament of Youth can occasionally seem like a cycle of heart-wrenching anguish, it does capture the perspective of the women who were left behind and delivers on its auto biographer’s pacifist, feminist message.