Of the many memoirs and historical accounts that have come out of the wars during the twentieth century, few are as loved and revered as Vera Brittain's 'Testament of Youth'. Recounting her experiences as a nurse during the First World War, and the effect the war had on her family and friends, it has been a constant bestseller and offered countless readers an honest and uncompromising view into the catastrophe the war inflicted on the youth of that generation. After a long gestation, and to coincide with the centenary of the war, her book has finally been adapted to the screen in an elegiac and affecting adaptation.
Rather than opening its focus to the full scope of the war, 'Testament of Youth' remains more a biography, keeping its focus tightly in Vera herself, played by Alicia Vikander. During the summer of 1914, as she prepares for her entrance exams to Oxford, she is introduced by her beloved brother Edward (Taron Egerton) to his schoolmate Roland (Kit Harrington). As their friendship blossoms into a romance, Roland and Edward enlist to fight, and as the war grows and worsens, Vera's life begins to splinter and fall apart.
By focusing on Vera's personal journey and hardships, 'Testament of Youth' feels far more personal than most war-themed romances or dramas. Director James Kent has crafted a handsome film, beautifully made with sumptuous production design, even though it suffers from a screenplay that feels a tad too episodic. Vera's story covers the full scope of the wartime experience, from her family country house to the battlefields of France, but the transition between each location and event seems a tad too meandering. This may have to do with the source material, but it means that the film seems to lack the central focus it needs to hold it together.
That said, it's still a deeply affecting film, as the tragedies mount. It's a breath of fresh air to have a war film that looks at the female experience and the challenges and choices women had to face in order to survive or stay sane. After working so hard to win a place at Oxford in a time where the education of women wasn't seen as a priority, Vera is forced to choose between her education and contributing to the war effort in the hopes it will contribute to the safety of Roland and Edward. The emotional stakes of the film are immense, and each of the characters are forced to face it with the traditional British pragmatism until the stiff-upper-lip approach simply cannot work any more. Vera Brittain's story is remarkably tragic, and 'Testament of Youth' doesn't hold back from delivering some significant, unexpected and cruel blows to the audience. It would be a disservice to Vera's legacy to do any less.
Even if the filmmaking is unremarkable and the screenplay lacking in structural focus, what holds the film together is its remarkable central performance. Alicia Vikander has been quietly waiting in the wings for her big moment, after terrific turns in 'A Royal Affair' (2012) and 'Anna Karenina' (2012), and Vera Brittain is the character that finally gives it to her. This is a passionate and powerful performance, one that Vikander throws herself into utterly. The emotional and physical challenges are enormous, but Vikander never allows them to be indulgent, attacking them with tremendous focus and strength. This is a star-making performance, and hopefully one that propels her career forward. Kit Harrington is also terrific as Roland, a subdued and tender performance unlike anything we've seen from him before. There's also wonderful and heartbreaking from Taron Egerton as Edward (another star in the making) and Colin Morgan as schoolmate Victor. The chemistry between these four actors is magical, and even though they spend very little time together on screen, the effect of it lasts the rest of the film. The supporting cast is a truly impressive one with some significant names like Emily Watson and Dominic West, but the true standout is Hayley Atwell as Hope, a nurse who works with Vera in France. She injects some glorious humour and heart into the darkest passage of the film.
What holds the film together is its remarkable central performance.
I've thrown a lot of criticism at 'Testament of Youth', but the strangest thing about it is that, even with all these flaws, it's still a deeply affecting film. It's very much the sum of its parts, honouring a woman and her experiences that have since shaped our understanding of the role of women during a time of war. It's a beautifully made film, bolstered by terrific performances. It might not culminate into the classic it's trying to be, but that doesn't make it any less impressive.