Testament of Youth (2014)

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Similar to last year’s The Railway Man, the awards season wouldn’t be complete without a war epic.  Originally slated to be released as part of the UK’s World War I celebrations, the adaptation of the first installment of Vera Brittain’s celebrated memoir was shown as part of the 2014 London Film Festival and is now getting a January release in the UK.

Testament of Youth retells the early life of author Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) as she prepares for life at Cambridge University.  As war breaks out, she chooses to defer her studies to enlist as a nurse, witnessing the struggles and pain of war all around her.

Although it is considered one of the most popular memoirs of World War I, Testament of Youth feels drawn out to accommodate its 129min running time.  Its aim to encapsulate a 25-year-long installment in a feature-length film, not to mention its focus on the senseless trauma of war, is quite ambitious and provides a platform for director James Kent to indulge in the bleakness of the period.

This desolation throughout the picture does little to bring hope and reassurance to the headstrong Brittain, especially as she has to see the ones she loves suffer from the war, from her brother Edward (Tagon Egerton) and fiancé (Kit Harington) to her parents (Emily Watson and Dominic West).  As a result, the supporting actors merely serve as catalysts to highlight Brittain’s personal struggles, paling in dramatic impact in terms of screen time and on-screen persona.  However, all of the emotional conflict leads to a strong performance from Swedish-born Vikander.

Vikander personifies the classic English rose but her intelligence, strength of character and courage paints her as more than a would-be casualty of war.  Rebelling against her father’s wishes, self-teaching to get into one of the UK’s prestigious universities only for her to sacrifice her education to help others paint a contrasting picture to other female characters in period dramas, who have a tendency to blend into the background while their other half succumb to the distress of combat.

The costumes and attention to historical detail are eye-catching as they are simple and add class to the piece, but the overall tone of the piece is aided by its subtle, effective truth of war from the refreshing perspective of a nurse, rather than a soldier.

Beautiful, moving yet grim, Testament of Youth is very obviously awards-bait, but one that finally gives Alicia Vikander an opportunity to shine.

Testament of Youth is out in UK cinemas on 16 January 2015.

Director: James Kent
Writers: Vera Brittain (autobiography), Juliette Towhidi
Stars: Hayley Atwell, Dominic West, Kit Harington
Runtime: 129 mins
Country: UK

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

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