TESTAMENT OF YOUTH
In Britain during World War I, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) is a young woman whose journey begins from youthful hopes and dreams and goes to the edge of despair and back again. It's a story of young love, the futility of war and how to make sense of the darkest times.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Based on Vera Brittain's highly successful memoirs from the terrible days of World War I, this is not so much an adaptation for the screen as a film of the book. The primary difference is that the sense of story we yearn for at the cinema is drowned in the chapters of 'then this happened'. It's not enough to relay what happened to Vera and what she did, however sensitively portrayed by Alicia Vikander, and to trudge through the drama of those four awful years.
Studiously recreated, the era of pre-war England and the gorgeous English countryside establish the post Victorian lifestyle in which Vera reaches University age - not that she gets to University without a fight, since her father (Dominic West) is against women emancipating by learning. Waste of money, if you ask him, when she could be polishing her piano skills and thus more easily attract a better class of husband. (Yeah, just a hundred years ago, folks.)
Perhaps sticking too faithfully to the book (and emphasized by Max Richter's sentimental score), the filmmakers end up making a rather gloomy chick-flick, rather than the war drama with a modern heroine, which it might have been.
Some scenes are stilted, such as the one in the immediate aftermath of the war when Vera stands up at a rowdy meeting of locals who are demanding that "Germany Must Pay", arguing to stop recriminations and reprisals, even though she herself lost so much. Written and directed differently, it could have been a moving and powerful ending, had the filmmakers felt less in awe of the memoir.
The period is well captured even by dialogue and performances, thanks to the source material no doubt, and the nuances of relationships add texture to the film. To its credit, in my view, there is no war footage at all; we see dead and wounded, but no gunfire, no battles, no screeching bombs. This serves to personalize the story; but I can't help thinking that with the millions killed in that war, what makes this story special and worth telling on film? Each dead young soldier laves lovers, family and friends in their wake, each carries the admonition to the living that war is sheer carnage.
Review by Louise Keller:
The mix of dreams and pragmatism is a potent cocktail in this cinematic and moving adaptation of Vera Brittain's memoir about her wartime experiences. Stimulated by Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron, it is clarity and truth that propels her; this young woman with a mind of her own, who refuses to conform to expectations of her time and status. Director James Kent's debut feature effectively and disarmingly involves us in its characters and the way Vera's spirit is embodied in Alicia Wikander's stunning portrayal.
The film begins on Armistice Day, November 1918, when the pensively featured and exquisitely beautiful Wikander does not seemingly share the flag-waving, fevered excitement of the crowds. The narrative picks up four years earlier in the picturesque English countryside where Vera, her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and a would-be suitor are enjoying a swim in an idyllic natural lake setting. Studying at Oxford is on Vera's mind, much to the disapproval of her father Dominic West) and her loud insistence that she has no intention to ever marry, ironically coincides with the ill-timed arrival of Edward's friend, Roland Leighton (Kit Harington).
While Harington's delivery is rather dull, the promise of passion and the flurry of the development of the romance between Vera and Roland is anything but. They exchange poetry, there is a white rose, a stolen kiss and the chaos of the train station as the inevitable farewell takes place when war breaks out and Oxford dreams are replaced by men's perception of honour. Miranda Richard makes an impact as the sharp-witted English professor who immediately identifies Vera as someone keen to stand out and reluctantly acknowledges that men go to war while women remain at home and knit.
But Vera's compulsion to do something, while the men in her life are putting their lives at risk, sets her on a path where purpose is everything. The scene in which she nurses a dying German soldier is one of the film's most memorable. Screenwriter Juliette Towhidi's adaptation flows naturally in line with the emotional timbre of the exposition. There is no false sentimentality or manipulation; the tears that will be shed are all for the right reasons; there is heartbreak, resilience and the prevalence of strength of character.
Women will relate to this story above all, although the tale and portrayal is such that all lovers of a well-told story will embrace the elements as it a wartime story with a different perception. I especially like the inherent sense of Englishness Kent has nurtured; the scene when Vera sees her mother's perception of a crisis (Emily Watson in good form) is worlds apart from her own, after facing the horrors in makeshift hospitals on the front. The different roles of men and women of the day are clearly depicted; watch for the unexpectedly devastating moment when West effectively shows emotion as his son leaves for war. There is some indelible imagery - cinematic and by the spoken word - while the heartfelt conclusion is one that allows the promise of spring to be embraced.
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TESTAMENT OF YOUTH (M)
CAST: Hayley Atwell, Alicia Vikander, Taron Egerton, Kit Harington, Dominic West, Colin Morgan, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson
PRODUCER: Rosie Alison, David Heyman
DIRECTOR: James Kent
SCRIPT: Juliette Towhidi (autobiography by Vera Brittain)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Rob Hardy
EDITOR: Lucia Zucchetti
MUSIC: Max Richter
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jon Henson
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 23, 2015