At the beginning of James Kent’s “Testament of Youth” the Armistice has been signed, ending World War 1. Though our protagonist, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) isn’t celebrating. As she makes her way through crowded London streets she looks beaten down and dazed. By this point, the war has practically taken everything from her. In real life, Brittain became a Pacifist after experiencing the horrors of The Great War first hand. Based on her memoir of the same name, “Testament of Youth” carries a strong anti-war message. However, Kent handles it with subtlety and compassion, slowly easing into it, instead of starting with suffering right away. Additionally, he keeps the focus of the movie on Vera and her evolution as a character.
We flash back to the time before the war, a better time. The cinematography by Rob Hardy is lush and sparkling, bringing out the beauty of the spa town of Buxton where Vera lives with her parents and older brother Edward (Taron Egerton). Here, she lives a privileged but uneventful life; besides Edward she has no companionship. Most of the time she’s cooped up in the house, writing poetry and dreaming of a better life. These initial twenty minutes are all about Vera’s resistance to the conventional roles women were forced into and her desire to stand out (Brittain was also a feminist). Her petite figure makes her look fragile and weak on the outside, but on the inside she’s audacious and resilient. She wants to go to Oxford, not settle down and get married.
Although, things change rather quickly when Edward brings home school chap Roland, (Kit Harrington) a fellow poet and before long sparks begin to fly between them. On the film’s theatrical poster their relationship is front and center, which is misleading. Not only is “Testament of Youth” not a romance movie but the Roland-Vera relationship is probably the least interesting aspect and the way Kent handles it partly undermines Vera’s character.
She ends up getting into Oxford but when Roland goes off to war she drops out and becomes a war nurse in London. Now, it’s not unreasonable that someone would drop of out of school to help the war effort but in the movie we’re given the impression that Vera drops out primarily because of Roland—if she wasn’t involved with him she would have stayed at Oxford. A decision like this doesn’t feel in keeping with the slightly stubborn, independent-minded Vera we were introduced to in the beginning. While Roland is certainly dashing and handsome, their relationship doesn’t have enough substance for us to believe Vera would give up her hard fought space at Oxford for him.
Yet, in the long run, “Testament of Youth” isn’t about their relationship but a character study of Vera—showing her change from a privileged naïve girl living in Buxton to a hardened, world-weary survivor of the war. As we later find out, her relationship with Roland primarily serves as the first stop in her loss of innocence. Those looking for a breezy period romance will be sorely let down. The second half of the picture serves up a harsh dose of wartime reality-- effectively shattering the pretty upbeat tone of the first half. Even Hardy’s cinematography becomes greyer to reflect this bleak change of pace.
Kent, to his credit, handles this transition with restraint. Instead of bombarding us with wartime suffering right away, he takes his time. At first the changes are small; Roland and Vera continue their happy, passionate romance while newspaper headlines announcing Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination warn us of impending doom. When Vera receives some tragic news over the telephone, Kent lets the scene play out in dreadful, stomach churning silence as Vera goes into shock. The movie avoids melodrama at all costs, making the picture’s shift in tone more believable.
Except for occasional flashes showing the depleted, muddied faces of soldiers on the front, we experience the wartime horrors from Vera’s point of view as she works in the overcrowded, disgusting hospitals. Kent doesn’t shy away from showing us the gruesome, ugly costs of war—a long shot showing Vera walking around a large field filled with injured soldiers is overwhelming and devastating. At the same time, because of Kent’s gradual and subtle approach, the movie never feels exploitive. Its anti-war message doesn’t come across too heavy-handed, making the scenes of suffering all the more resonant.
“Testament of Youth” stumbles at a few places along the way but it still packs quite an emotional punch. And it’s all anchored in a magnificent performance from Vikander. As Vera, she expresses a wide range of emotions over the course of the movie. Vikander makes her into a well-rounded, three-dimensional human being. When Vera becomes an outspoken opponent of war we believe it because her transformation has been captured with so much depth and detail. By the end we’re just as emotionally drained and dazed by the war as she is.