Drama: Starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, Taron Egerton, Jonathan Bailey, Colin Morgan, Emily Watson, Dominic West, Miranda Richardson, Hayley Atwell. Directed by James Kent. Cert 12A
With the centenary of the First World War now up and running we can expect a plethora of films about that dreadful conflict to emerge over the next couple of years but Testament of Youth has set a very high bar indeed. Based on Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir of the same name, the story encompasses elements of social struggle in addition to the effects of the carnage which obliterated a generation of European youth.
We open in the idyllic spring of 1914 with Vera (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander with a flawless English accent) hoping to head to college in Oxford while setting her cap at the dashing Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington from Game of Thrones), a fellow scholar and best friend of her brother Edward, played by Taron Egerton. As we know only too well, war intervenes and the young men dutifully, almost cheerfully, join up while Vera gains admittance to Somerville College, overseen by a crusty but benign Miranda Richardson.
As the casualties mount Vera volunteers as a nurse, first in London but later in a frontline field hospital in France where the true horrors of what was supposed to be a short and ‘glorious’ war become plain to her. What’s interesting about Testament of Youth is that it doesn’t concentrate on battlefield scenes but rather on the effects of mechanised warfare which, after all, is what Brittain herself would have witnessed.
Alicia Vikander is outstanding as Vera, a fiesty, determined young woman who battled on even after the war claimed those closest to her. There’s a particularly moving section of the film when Roland comes home briefly on leave and although not physically injured is clearly a very badly damaged young man. A powerful and essential story beautifully told by debut director James Kent, Testament of Youth is old-fashioned but proper film-making with a huge truth at its core.
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