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TESTAMENT OF YOUTH
January 15, 2015
Alicia Vikander faces a difficult task in Testament of Youth. As the beating heart in a largely restrained and sober film, it falls on her to carry the pathos of this stirring adaptation of Vera Brittain’s World War I autobiography. Simultaneously, however, she must portray a Brittain who doesn’t always elicit the audience’s sympathies, who is at times bull-headed and stubborn to a fault, and occasionally simply hard to like.
It’s a tribute to Vikander’s performance then to say that Testament of Youth is indeed a success, capturing both the intellectual and emotional tragedy of the war. Vikander herself is a powerful force, reflecting intellect and ambition early on and a horrified resolve as the film goes on. Her portrayal of Brittain is never cold and emotionless, but rather holds her emotions down while she grapples with what she must do. Every now and then her accent gives away her Scandinavian heritage, but never enough to distract from the performance as a whole. Despite Brittain experiencing tragedies that at times seem almost unbelievable, Vikander keeps her performance understated, subtle and real.
Brittain is a bright girl from a wealthy background, desperate for the chance to study at Oxford and spending summers with her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his two friends Victor (Colin Morgan) and Roland (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington). A love triangle is deftly handled as the war looms, these relatively minor concerns standing in stark contrast to the bloodshed that the audience knows is looming.
After the war inevitably breaks, Brittain finds herself watching as her brother and his friends enlist and are sent off. For her part, she finds herself unable to remain secluded in the ivory tower, instead signing up to be a nurse, which is how director James Kent opts to show us the worst of the physical harm of the war, especially in a harrowing sequence set in a field hospital in Étaples, reaching its crescendo with an overhead shot of a sea of bodies laid out in the mud.
It would be easy for a film with similar subject matter to focus itself too narrowly, to portray the loss of individuals but lose any sense of the broader conflict, yet here the personal loss is typically framed by societal loss, keeping both in view at all times. The psychological horrors of the war aren’t lost on the film’s characters either, as personal relations are strained by the knowledge of what they have each witnessed, characters returning from the frontlines forever changed – if they return at all.
As we continue through the centenary of the First World War over the next few years, it seems inevitable that there will be some rousing and inspirational depictions, celebrating the heroic soldiers and their sacrifices in the name of freedom. Testament of Youth is not one of those films. Ultimately, it’s a challenge to that temptation to mythologize the conflict, to find a greater meaning in the violence and death. Brittain herself ended up treating German soldiers in France, ultimately realizing that they were there for the same reasons as the British soldiers, that everyone thought they were on the right side.
Brittain’s, and the film’s, message is a stark one: the war was brutal, ugly, and pointless. The film’s great tragedy is not that there was so much death, and Brittain experienced more than most, but that ultimately it was in the service of nothing more than empty power politics. Juliette Towhidi’s script reinforces this by carefully avoiding dwelling on the causes of the conflict, leaving that to background newspaper headlines and ill-informed chatter early on. The audience isn’t reminded of why war broke out, or why Britain’s participation might have been noble, because no justification could account for what followed.
A script that strives for authenticity combines with restrained cinematography (Rob Hardy) and flawless costumes (Consolata Boyle) to place the audience directly into Brittain’s Britain, which, for all its horrors, could at times be hauntingly beautiful. These moments of beauty – including wartime poetry – are captured and celebrated, but never used to dull the horrors of the conflict.
Testament of Youth is at times an unrelenting ride through personal suffering, but Vikander gives us a Brittain more than up to the task of surviving, persevering and ultimately publicly challenging attempts to glorify the war and dehumanise the Germans on the other side. You’re unlikely to much enjoy watching the film, but for the most part it’s a powerful, sophisticated look at the war that serves as a challenge to lazy attempts to ennoble it over the centenary.
Testament Of Youth is out in UK cinemas on January 16th