Film review: Testament of Youth
Based on the First World War memoir by renowned English writer/pacifist, Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth is a story about family, strength, weakness, love and remembrance. It is about finding hope in a world gone to hell and about coping when hope itself is extinguished.
Before the outset of WWI, strong-willed and determined Brittain lands herself a place at Oxford University and, against her better judgement, falls in love with a dashing young poet. They are set to study at Oxford together. She has a loving family, good friends and quite the brain in her head. The world, it seems, is her oyster.
Then, the war begins and the world quickly falls in around her. Desperate to do her bit for the war effort and to feel closer to those she loves who are fighting in the trenches, she postpones her studies to serve as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in London and, later, in France. Youthful love and playful afternoons swimming in the local lake are soon nothing but a distant memory, as she tends to dying soldiers in the most horrific conditions.
Brittain is played by Alicia Vikander. Interestingly, she isn’t British (you might remember her from the outstanding A Royal Affair), yet you’d never know that English isn’t her mother-tongue throughout her convincing, powerful performance as a strong, single-minded woman. Kit Harington too, is great as her love interest, whose sweet poetry is steadily replaced by a dead-eyed gaze once he is exposed to the horrors of life on the front line. At first, it is hard to disassociate him from Game of Thrones, but it doesn’t take long for him to feel like more than just a clean-shaven Jon Snow. There are some fine supporting roles too, from Miranda Richardson, Dominic West and Hayley Atwell.
Portraying the conflict from a woman’s point of view, Testament of Youth is a journey to hell and some way back. Despite being over two hours long and dealing with desperately sad subject-matter, the film is a far easier watch than you might imagine. It is as much a paean to the strength of human spirit and the power of love as it is about the desperate futility of war, and is a thoroughly engaging story from start to finish.
With magnificent performances throughout, Testament of Youth tells a story that is as relevant now as it was 100 years ago.
Review by Bobby Townsend. The film opens in Australian cinemas April 23.