Let’s not beat around the bush here: war sucks. Nothing to me is more horrifying than the thought of being given a gun and ordered to kill another, for reasons that so often seem petty and pointless. It’s never that simple of course, but the point stands. The First World War was especially a waste, with the various fronts from the fields of France to the beaches of Gallipoli devolving into a collective quagmire of human misery rarely seen before.
Vera Brittain saw the lot of it, serving as a nurse during the War and having her fiancé, brother and two close friends die on the front line. She channelled her grief and sorrow from her wartime experiences into her memoirs and campaigning for peace throughout her lifetime, becoming an icon of the pacifist movement and admired by feminists for her strong will to fight expectations. Testament of Youth is an iconic work of literature for its uncompromising depiction of the war and its lingering effects amongst ordinary people, so it is not surprising that, in the wake of the 100th anniversary of the War, it would see a film adaptation. As a work of anti-war fiction it never stood a chance against the original, but nevertheless it is a war film worth seeing, especially if Anzac Day stirred you up this year.
Testament of Youth works as a drama because it refuses to pull its punches about how horrific the First World War really was for ordinary people. What many young men and women of England thought would be the greatest adventure of their lives was really a clusterfuck of blood, mud, and missing limbs, and that’s exactly what this film shows. Many aspects of the wartime experience are here, from the decision to help out through to the trauma of losing those closest to you. The cinematography works here to capture both the beauty of the English countryside and all of its peace and tranquillity, perhaps reflecting the ideals of a non-violent world that Brittain campaigned for long after the war, and the horrors of the muddied fields of France complete with mounds of dead bodies, a contrast which is not lost on the viewer. The gore alone, mostly seen in the field hospitals where young Ms. Brittain treated the grievously wounded, wouldn’t be out of place in Saw, but that’s not what we’re at the cinema to see; it instead enhances those feelings of grief and loss that are so central to Vera Brittain’s story.
It’s a shame then that the film falls just short of being able to fully convey these feelings because of rather shoddy acting. Swedish actress Alicia Vikander does perfectly well, even fantastically, as Brittain; her on-screen presence often being that which best carries the film forward. In a film of this type, the emotion the characters show has to feel natural, be reflective of how we actually react to horrific situations, and this is what Vikander does best; I haven’t seen better cinematic crying for a very long time. Kit Harington, playing Brittain’s lover Roland Leighton, is just stiff as a board here. He looks incredibly uncomfortable having to play the sweetheart, a man changed by the war, and every time he appeared he sucked the soul out of what could have been touching and sentimental moments. I don’t watch Game of Thrones so I’m not sure how good he can be, but his performance here doesn’t leave a good impression upon me. This is problematic because Roland as a character is supposed to be Vera’s main motivation for her decisions, and Harington couldn’t deliver when it really mattered. He probably should have stayed back at the Wall. Hayley Atwell is also in this, but I couldn’t tell who or where she was. Not a good sign if you want me to watch and/or like Agent Carter.
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There is still a lot to like about Testament of Youth, however. You literally could not make up a better wartime story than Vera Brittain’s, and while this adaptation is not perfect, it is well suited to those who appreciate good drama and aren’t afraid to bust out the tissues when the wave of feels hits them. Jolly good show.