Testament of Youth

April 25, 2015
Alicia Vikander in 'Testament of Youth' (2014)
Alicia Vikander in 'Testament of Youth' (2014)

Lest we forget it’s Anzac Day here’s another movie about the First World War, albeit far from the shores of Gallipoli. Testament of Youth is based on the war-time memoirs of Vera Brittain (1893-1970), first published in 1933, 15 years after the end of hostilities. Having begun the project as a novel Brittain struggled with her material. It was only after she decided to write in her own voice that the story took wing. At first appearance the book was acclaimed an instant classic.

James Kent’s elegant, ever-so-British film, restores a fictional gloss to Brittain’s hard facts. Events are telescoped and rearranged for dramatic effect. The author’s political convictions, which occupied a considerable part of the book, are touched on lightly.

This is a first feature for Kent, who is known for TV dramas and documentaries, and it feels at times as if we were watching a typical, well-made BBC mini-series. The task was made a little harder by the fact that Testament of Youth has already been the subject of a successful TV adaptation in 1979.

Kent and his experienced script-writer, Julia Towhidi, have chosen to emphasise the love story and play down the scenes of combat, although this decision may have been partly dictated by a budget of only £10 million. There was no opportunity for elaborate, awe-inspiring sets, like the long pan over the beach in Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007).

Despite the romantic flourishes, including many scenes that come dangerously close to cliché, this adaptation succeeds in conveying the core themes of Brittain’s story: the pain and futility of war, the waste of talent and promise, the tide of enthusiasm and peer pressure that drove young men to enlist. It gves us an intimate, behind-the-scenes view of the conflict that marked the true beginning of the Modern era.

All wars leave scars on a culture but the changes brought about by World War One were cataclysmic. In Australia we felt our nationhood had been blessed by this “baptism of blood”, allowing us to imagine ourselves a new race of warriors and sportsmen. For the British the euphoric moment when the war ended was followed by a long period of bitterness and mourning, as the nation counted the costs of its victory.

Testament of Youth paints a suitably idyllic picture of life before the war, when gilded youths could swim in ponds on a summer’s day and dream of future glories at Oxford. For the young Vera Brittain, the passage to university was not so straightforward. The film begins with Vera (Alicia Vikander) having a tantrum when she finds that her father has bought her a piano. She would have preferred he spent the money on sending her to university.

We understand at once that Vera is a feminist, determined to share all the privileges of her male counterparts. She is immersed in her studies of English literature to the point of seeming cold and unresponsive to the advances of her brother Edward’s friends. One of them, however, finds a chink in her armour.

Roland Leighton, played by Kit Harington of Games of Thrones, is a dashing young poet who seems instantly besotted with Vera. He has the edge on another friend, Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan), who buries his own aspirations.

Just as this group of friends are laying plans for their wonderful Bohemian lifestyles at Oxford, the war intervenes. It hardly needs saying that it’s all down hill from here. The fairy tale opening to the story has already signalled that death and disaster await. There is no surprise in the tragic events that follow, only a sense of anticipation, as we wonder how bad it can get.

Much of the movie’s power resides in the performances of the lead actors. Vikander has to play a young woman who is both fiercely independent and hopelessly in love. No mean feat for a Swedish actress negotiating the subtleties of an upper middle-class British accent.

Harington’s Roland is equally conflicted, caught between his feelings for Vera and a sense of duty to his country. Although duty seems to win every round, Roland is no action hero. When he returns on leave his behaviour is so impulsive and strange we realise he is traumatised. At this stage we have seen almost nothing of the battlefields, but its creeping horror has infected the joy of the lovers’ reunion.

The truth of this story is that Vera and Roland spent no more than 17 days in each others’ company, and the closest they came to an embrace may have been a kiss on the hand as he left for France. This cinematic romance is warmer, but still chaste. How peculiar it is nowadays for a movie to keep sex at such a distance. The lovers’ respect for the social niceties is no less foreign to our way of thinking than the drawn-out carnage of the war itself. One should not be surprised if this unrequited passion feels more moving than an extended love affair. Its brief flickering against the war’s gathering darkness makes us aware of how many individual stories were denied their happy ending.

Testament of Youth
Directed by James Kent
Written by Juliette Towhidi, from a memoir by Vera Brittain
Starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan, Dominic West, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson
UK, rated M, 129 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 25th April, 2015.