Vera Brittain’s WWI memoir of the same name is ideal subject matter to adapt for the big screen. Wartime and one woman’s inner strength (as well as beauty) is a heady mixture. Screenwriter Juliette Towhidi is sensitive to the original material, wanting Brittain to be a champion for women while very much innocent and blindly in love. In Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair), they have found a worthy lead actress to become that feminine bastion.
Privileged, intelligent and free-spirited Vera enjoys an idyllic country life with her adored younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and mother and father (Emily Watson and Dominic West). Edward brings home two pals one day, Victor (Colin Morgan) and Roland (Kit Harington), the latter of whom Vera realises shares the same poetry and literary passions as her, and who she soon falls in love with.
Battling conservative expectations of how a young lady at the turn of the 20th
Director James Kent may well have a background in TV drama making, but he comfortably condenses this fascinating story into a feature film, without losing the passion and grief that accompanies every situation. The transitions from comfortable existence to sheer horror on the battlefront are seamless, a metaphor for how Vera’s life rushes away with her downstream into the rapids. What keeps her head above water is knowing that every experience will challenge her to make something of herself at a later date – you can sense a literary genius at work as we watch her mature.
Perhaps the most invigorating aspect of Testament of Youth is the exceptional young acting talent that it reveals. Vikander has all the grace, beauty and defiant sense of a younger, Swedish Keira Knightley. The actress has the formidable task of portraying every facet of Vera’s character in a turbulent time, and she does so, so eloquently and seamlessly, with a commanding presence, that she has undoubtedly secured a bright future in British period drama after this.
Egerton, Morgan and Harington each support Vikander’s impressive screen presence, themselves demonstrating the richness of Brit acting talent in period drama, and again cementing our prowess in this area. Their infectious enthusiasm keeps an otherwise harrowing (and visually brutal) story of war buoyant – a testament of youth. That’s not to say all things are peachy. Harington gives his troubled character an added dark edge when war begins to affect him, allowing doubt to creep in to Roland’s true state of mind.
There are some commendable performances too, from Watson and West, portraying the usual fussiness and pomposity of the time. However, Miranda Richardson’s moments of clipped retort as Oxford professor Miss Lorimer is the most memorable ‘adult’ act to enjoy (after pushing all initial thoughts of Rita Skeeter out of your mind). Lorimer is like an intriguing, later version of Vera in life as she deals with the pressures of her position while showing compassion and feeling as a strength of character when fate meets her.
The strong, parting message Testament Of Youth leaves is not allowing challenging times to change the needs and desires of an individual. Staying true to oneself is half the battle won. Duty does call, and like Vera, learn from that but use it to grow and shape as a better person. Vera’s enlightening end speech may shamelessly pander to the liberal, pacifist camp but serves a chilling reminder that in war, we are all equal in mind, body and soul. It is also a final fitting tribute to this remarkable woman’s own coming-of-age tale.