Testament of Youth, based on Vera’s Brittain’s epic memoirs, opens in cinemas today. Hannah Dunleavy took a look.
Kit Harrington and Alicia Vikander star in Testament of Youth, based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain
Armistice Day, 1918, and a woman runs through a crowd, literally buffeted by the world around her. She takes refuge in a church where she finds a painting of the Great Flood, bodies smashed on the rocks. It’s a little too on the nose a start to James Kent’s adaptation of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.
By truncating the memoir to a period from just before the First World War to the few months afterwards, screenwriter Juliette Towhidi gives her lead actress a lot of ground to make up and denies her the opportunity to bloom into something new at the end.
Still, Alicia Vikander does an excellent job of everything between. When we first meet Vera, she’s infuriating her father (Dominic West) with her Bluestocking aspirations and traipsing round the countryside in some truly wonderful knitwear with three lovely boys: her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), her soon to be fiancé Roland (Kit Harrington) and her stoic admirer Victor (Colin Morgan).
Elsewhere, it’s like a successful dip in the bran tub of British acting talent. Miranda Richardson as Vera’s spiky Oxford tutor; Emily Watson as her increasingly frayed mother; Anna Chancellor as her future mother-in-law.
It’s not a set-up entirely without levity; the ever-reliable Joanne Scanlon is charming as the world’s worst chaperone and there’s some black humour in Hayley Atwell’s tour of the hospital’s German hut when Vera arrives at the front (“I cut that arm off myself.”)
The central romantic pairing works well and rightly stays as just one part, rather than the most, of Vera’s story. Harrington is a safe pair of hands but looks like a man in a youth’s role (the clue was in the title guys). Their romance is presented as a necessarily chaste Stephen Soderbergh/Terrence Malick mash-up of extreme close-up remembrances of dreamy smiling and soft breezes on shoulders.
But this all comes to a screeching halt as Vera’s three boys sign up for war and she for duty as a nurse, and the slowly unfolding nightmare of her story takes over. There’s blood, horror and tears, and some remarkably affecting scenes – the nurse stepping into an seemingly endless field of the wounded on stretchers, or West avidly inspecting the train station timetables in a bid to hide his grief at waving off his son for what could be his last time.
By ending the film so soon after the war, we see very little of the impact all of this had on the young woman we’d come to admire. Her passionate pacifism after the war is reduced to a single speech and a mini-biog before the credits. Testament of Youth is a good film about what happened to Vera Brittain. Hopefully it’ll inspire people to find out more about who she became.899 Views
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.