Opening months after the centenary of the First World War, the sumptuous yet solemn feature debut of television director James Kent is a worthy and moving tribute to that flowering generation whose memory bloomed so spectacularly last year as the Tower of London’s famous dry moat ran blood red with over 800,000 poppies. A field of these flowers adorns much of the film’s promotional material, the U.S. one-sheet in particular, intensifying their hue to a flame that’s accurately indicative of this atypically vivid biopic.
Testament of Youth is both the coming-of-age and key-witness account of Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander), a free-minded and irrepressible feminist who, determined to sit exams for Oxford and be her own woman, was unexpectedly shaped and forever shadowed by the outbreak of WWI. Charting her experience of a mindless slaughter that saw her lose her brother, lover, and two dearest male friends, she became a lifelong pacifist campaigner and later wrote the revered memoir that gives the film its title. Juliette Towhidi’s exhaustively researched screenplay pulls not only from this source, but Mark Bostridge and Paul Berry’s biography and Brittain’s personal correspondence, compellingly encompassing so much of this time of incomparable change, human annihilation, and social upheaval which saw Edwardian-era values ripped away and an age of innocence brought to a definitively devastating end.
Brittain may have spoken for a generation, but wisely, the film doesn’t attempt to do the same. The autobiographical voice is perceived rather than heard through cinematographer Rob Hardy’s fluid and subjective camera, proximate to first-person experience as it continually fights to find a point of focus amid turbulent scenes of Vera working as a volunteer nurse, surrounded by people living and dead. It’s a visual language former documentarian Kent powerfully establishes in the opening of Armistice Day 1918, the camera pushing and shoving behind a broken woman disconnected from the cheering crowds around her, seen only as a blur. Repeated close-ups of Vikander’s stoically baffled, uncomprehending eyes transmit all the trauma of the trenches without the need of a view from the battlefield.
Here’s a war movie whose stark disillusionments are measured not by the catastrophic off-screen death toll, nor the unmitigated miseries of the men Vera tries to save, but a consciousness so haunted by the likely loss of her loved ones that the separation anxiety from her fiancé, Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington), is sharpened to a poignancy beyond verbal expression. Fittingly, then, Testament of Youth forgoes sound and fury for the soundless clamor of a bad dream, with intermittent shots of Vera staring out at us in palpitating silence. The film’s inferno of horrors are undoubtedly visceral, but psychologically implosive rather than entrails-exploding.
With the stately sweep of many a BBC production, the script’s reliance on private letters and poetry prides a feeling of complex interiority over visual pomp and prestige, though the lighting maintains a visual elegance throughout. An extended pre-war sequence of carefree, autumnal idyll is such a drowsy intoxication of shinning greenery that the complacent mood lends it a creeping, inescapable sense of foreboding, a thickening fog appearing to separate Vera from the other male principals who already feel like the doomed ghosts of memories that she must learn to live with.
As a young woman of the time living a sheltered life of limited horizons, Vera chaffed against a provincial society not encouraging of the capacity for thought in girls who ought only to be concerned with their eligibility for marriage during debutante season (her father will gladly pay for an expensive piano, but refuses to put the money toward a year at Oxford). Vera’s bond with the young men in her life is such that she lives for them and vicariously through them. Treated as an equal among her male contemporaries, theirs is a friendship that forges an insoluble connection between the personal and political. Authentically period-looking co-stars Harrington, Taron Egerton, and Colin Morgan tenderly convey the shared importance of this bond with charming playfulness and gentle protectiveness, but their shared scenes together are entirely owned by the film’s lead actress.
Using her unblinking gaze to transcendently terrifying effect in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, the camera loves Vikander just as much when grief and sorrow flit across her face, only to harden into willful determination. In an equally poised performance of compassionate intensity, rigorous intelligence and joyful feistiness, Vikander portrays Vera as a young woman whose mind is always working to articulate hellish history in the moment, never allowing herself to forget the lost youth of her friends that was barely known. It’s credit then to the on-screen believability of mutual love and admiration the quartet feel for one another, that without having to elegize a generation, the film does well enough to satisfy the deeply felt obligations of Brittain’s own war dead.