Film Review: Testament Of Youth

Bbc Drama Looks At World War I Through A Darker Lens

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
Testament of Youth
“Goodbye. Good luck. ... Enjoy your first year at Hogwarts!”
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Though it’s doubtful Testament of Youth, the memoir by British author and noted pacifist Vera Brittain, has as much impact today as it did when it was first published in 1933, it remains a hallmark of modern English literature. So it’s no surprise to see BBC Films finally getting around to producing a high-tone adaptation of Brittain’s autobiographical tale. That’s kind of what BBC Films does: dig up English Lit classics that make for fine costume dramas. While the film will certainly scratch the itch of history-loving Anglophiles waiting impatiently for the next season of “Downton Abbey,” it never fully transcends its narrow target audience of PBS faithful.

Brittain’s book spoke volumes when it first came out, exposing audiences to the tragedies and deprivations heaped upon women and the working class as a result of World War I. No sunny, patriotic ode, this. The film version starts by introducing us to our protagonist, Vera Brittain, as played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (the beguiling fembot from
Ex Machina). Vera is a smart, willful, young lass. We realize early on she’s no wilting, Jane Austen heroine, concerned only with marriage and ball gowns. When her upper middle-class parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson) try to talk her out of applying to Oxford (by buying her piano), Vera refuses to take “no” for an answer. Finding a woman in the halls of academia circa 1914, is rather rare. But Vera dreams of being a writer and has her mind set on higher education. Before you can say A Room of One’s Own, Vera is off at Oxford, studying poetry and finding an ally in thorny but sympathetic instructor Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson).

Unfortunately, Vera is a victim of bad timing. Shortly after acing her entrance exam, a political squabble in Europe leads to the declaration of World War I. Needless to say, this puts a great many academic plans on hold. Vera’s younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton,
Kingsman: The Secret Service) volunteers for military service alongside Vera’s dreamy classmate Roland Leighton (Kit Harington … Sniff. We miss you, Jon Snow). Feeling that she should be serving her country (and perhaps believing that the boys are having all the fun), Vera drops out of college and volunteers as a nurse. Serving in a hospital in England, Vera starts to see some of the effects the war has on the country’s young men. When Roland returns home on leave, Vera witnesses the grim psychological impact of The Great War firsthand.

Brittain was considered “the voice of her generation.” Unfortunately, in moving her story from page to screen, we lose a lot of the author’s distinctive voice. What we’re left with, instead, is a rather standard wartime romance. It’s beautifully lensed in gauzy, late summer colors. But the film—directed by frequent British TV contributor James Kent—keeps everything quiet and relatively low-key. There are no big battle scenes, no epic set pieces—just your standard drawing room conversations and countryside ambles. It’s hard to see, really, what separates this feature film from just another well-mounted episode of “Masterpiece Theatre.”

As a “coming of age” story,
Testament of Youth delivers. It’s an increasingly dark and unflinching look at the domestic impact World War I had on England. Our heroine grows up quickly and learns a lot in a “crippling loss of innocence” kind of way. Back in 1933 the idea that The Great War had a lasting negative impact on England was undoubtedly a shocking concept to a patriotic country flush with victory. Eighty-odd years and countless international conflicts later, the idea that war is tragic and costly is sort of a no-brainer.

Despite a familiarity in the film’s subject matter and a lack of surprise in the story’s moral, our lead actress is flawless as the proto-feminist determined to be true to herself. Vikander is worth the price of admission. Vera’s willingness to do her duty and, eventually, to expose the pain that war has wrought on her country, her gender and her generation makes her a compelling central character. The rest of the cast, filled with fresh young faces, imparts a bit more energy than the majority of dusty historical dramas. There’s truth and sadness here. It’s buried beneath a stiff layer of BBC boilerplate—but if your taste runs toward literate British costume dramas, it’s worth unearthing.
Testament of Youth

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