Of the many films that have appeared in the wake of the centenary of the First World War, none are quite as elegant and affecting as James Kent's 'Testament of Youth', based on the acclaimed memoir by Vera Brittain. When I caught it at cinemas earlier this year, I was politely impressed by it, but revisiting it now for the Blu-ray release, I was struck by just how powerful it is and what a lasting effect it has. It might not be an extraordinary piece of cinema, but it packs its punches where it really matters.
The film follows the experiences of Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) during the First World War, and how much it cost her family, her friends and herself. Rather than being a sweeping romance, 'Testament of Youth' does what very few films have done before before: focus on a woman's perspective of the war, and instead of seeing a young man's journey from innocence to experience, we see a young woman's instead. I can't emphasise enough what a difference this makes - there's the expected sweeping romance, with tragic soldier Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington), but this isn't the heart of the story. Brittain emerged from the war as a very vocal pacifist, and if anything, the film is about how this impressive figure came to be.
From a technical standpoint, 'Testament of Youth' is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. Cinematographer Rob Hardy shoots this tragic coming-of-age with a melancholic nostalgia, but hand-held to add a sense of immediacy. The period production design is perfect, especially Consolata Boyle's costumes. Kent's direction is subtle and careful, always pulling the film back from emotional indulgence as the tragedy of the war begins to sink in. The only area where the film lacks is in Juliette Towhidi's screenplay. It's a fine job of adaptation, but occasionally comes across as clunky or cliché. Thankfully, Kent's direction and the superb cast are able to overcome these short-fallings. While the impressive supporting cast includes great actors like Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson and Dominic West, the heart of the film is in its young cast. Harrington, Taron Egerton and Colin Morgan are all superb as Vera's lover, brother and childhood friend, bypassing any masculine clichés to give heartbreaking and sensitive performances. Hayley Atwell also pops up for a superb cameo that lifts the film at its darkest moment.
But 'Testament of Youth' belongs to one person, and that's Alicia Vikander. After a succession of impressive supporting roles, she emerges as a genuine leading actor in her performance as Vera. It's a staggering performance, a careful balance of heartbreak and brute strength. Vikander demonstrates the kind of intelligence that signals a great actor at work, and if she wasn't already counted as one of the most exciting emerging talents working today, this performance would have solidified it. This film belongs to her, and it's all the better for it.
The film emerges as a statement for pacifism and the power of women in a time of great crisis.
'Testament of Youth' at first feels like well-trodden ground - a sweeping romance set against the backdrop of war - but when the fortunes of Vera Brittain begin to turn from tragic to catastrophic, the film emerges as a statement for pacifism and the power of women in a time of great crisis. This is a beautiful and haunting film that sticks with you long after it's over, and one that demands a revisit, if not just for the powerful performances at its heart.
PICTURE & SOUND
Transmission have given the film a fine 1080p 2.35:1 transfer for Blu-ray which recreates the dusty look of the cinematography. The image has a kind of nostalgic sepia texture, very much in keeping with the film, but doesn't lose any clarity or detail. It looks a dream in high definition. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is likewise excellent, modest yet impactful when necessary, with clear dialogue and excellent balance.
The only extra included is an eight-minute making-of, which includes interviews with the main cast and crew. While it's rare to have extras on a Transmission release in general, it would have been nice to have something that expanded on the true story behind it and the legacy of Brittain's memoir. That said, there's a lot of information packed into those eight minutes, and serves to emphasise the care and attention that went into the film.