Based on Vera Brittain’s best-selling memoir of events surrounding the First World War, Testament of Youth is well-acted and pretty, but lacks emotional impact.
Testament of Youth has already been adapted for television and radio. But if you haven’t encountered the story before, it will still seem terribly familiar. Hovering somewhere between Downton Abbey and Merchant Ivory, it is a tale of privilege, loss and high tea, in which a spirited young woman’s triumph over the patriarchy, in securing a place at Oxford, is tragically overshadowed by the meaningless slaughter of every boy she knows. Testament of Youth instantiates Hillary Clinton’s observation that, “Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat.”
With a gorgeous, subtle colour palate, and stark Yorkshire locations, the film is visually arresting. The acting is generally good too, with excellent cameos from the likes of stuffy dad Dominic West, jolly-hockey-sticks nurse Hayley Atwell, and Miranda Richardson, whose irascible bluestocking steals the show. As Vera, Swedish newcomer Alicia Vikander is exactly the darker, more substantial Keira Knightley one would hope for, and with more than half a dozen other films slated for release this year, she is one to watch. By contrast, her love interest, played by Kit Harington (Game of Throne’s Jon Snow) is little more than a snort and a smile, although this is equally the fault of the script, which leaves his character hopelessly underdeveloped.
The most serious flaw, though, is that emotionally it’s all rather flat. You never experience the heights of Vera’s passion, and without that no amount of ostensibly anguished wandering in muddy heathland can convey the depths of her despair. Perhaps the repression of feelings in a large section of Georgian society is a tragedy in itself, but here it makes for poor drama. With hundredth anniversary events rolling on until 2018, we might expect many more films focusing on this period over the next few years, and it would be interesting if at least some of them were to focus on the working classes. Testament of Youth is further hindered by the obligation to present events largely as they happened in real-life, robbing the filmmakers of the opportunity to tell a story with a more dynamic structure. By the time the closing credits roll, you really feel as if you’ve sat through all four years of the Great War.