This review was originally published during our coverage of the 2014 Leeds Film Festival.
Director James Kent has spoken of looking for some positivity in his adaptation of Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s memoir of her life during WWI, and the result is undoubtedly something made with reverence and good intentions. But condensing a 650-page autobiography into two hours by purging color and shade and leaving only the tragic main events has turned Testament of Youth into a mere misery parade, minus the luxuries of significant depth or characterization. This project was originally planned as a BBC miniseries, and the final film is compelling evidence for why it should’ve gone ahead that way.
The issues begin at what’s lost and left out in the translation from book to screen. The fetishization of Britain’s rich and powerful in the film is not the fault of the people who brought us Testament of Youth, nor is it their responsibility to deviate from the gentrified directorial style of the stuffy English period drama. It’s also no fault of theirs that the film’s main subject came from a background of influence, but the picture foregoes the wider angle, largely ignoring the working men and women who dealt with the aftermath of WWI without the comfort of privilege waiting for them at its close. The lead character (Alicia Vikander) and her circle are instead kept at the forefront while the varying other types of men and women whom Brittain mingled with all through The Great War remain firmly in the background.
There is, in fact, full investment in little of Brittain’s tale. We whip through her time as a young woman determined to be educated in a period when universal suffrage was still uunrealized her rocky relationship with her parents, her friendship with her brother’s doting friend Victor, her time spent caring for enemy soldiers as a field nurse, her miraculous encounter with a loved one at the front, and her eventual move into pacifism, which literally arrives as a footnote aside from one short scene where Vera publicly objects to German reparations after WWI.
That’s so much of what makes Brittain’s story so remarkable, reduced and robbed of nuance. Everything is too broadly sketched except for the romance between Vera and promising student/poet-turned-soldier Ronald Leighton (Kit Harington), a sideplot that is – regrettable as it is to admit about an adaptation of such beloved material – really the only thing worth catching Kent’s film for. Scenes of the pair wandering through nature with an overlay of poetry read in voiceover (it’s handled less pretentiously than it sounds) is reminiscent of Jane Campion’s superior Bright Star. Campion’s is a film that Testament of Youth matches for aching romanticism and appreciation of the English country’s misty glamour, if not for freewheeling spirit.
Sulky Game of Thrones beefcake Harington is surprisingly adequate as Roland, Brittain’s fiance and first love, and it’s scenes of courtship between him and Vera in which lead Vikander is finally allowed to come alive. The Swedish rising star is fine here, though her flawless Brit accent is more satisfying than her overall plain performance; not that the one-note character as written by screenwriter Juliette Towhidi would inspire much passion from any performer. Vikander’s superb work leading 2012’s A Royal Affair no doubt bagged her the role in this film, as well as ensured her trajectory toward a promising Hollywood career. Testament of Youth should have provided the actress with an opportunity to show why she’s the next big thing, in one of English-language cinema’s rare female lead roles. Unfortunately, it’s a role that’s likely to be swiftly forgotten.
Why Harington is the only actor with whom Vikander has any chemistry (and they do elevate the film above its dull staidness whenever they’re together) could be explained away by the fact that theirs is the only real relationship that’s developed and given weight. The support is handed little to work with – thesps as mighty as Dominic West, Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson are gifted the roles of Vaguely Strict Father, Vaguely Strict Mother and Vaguely Horrible Headteacher, respectively. Their problems, like so many of the film’s, are rooted in the unsatisfying script and unaided by James Kent’s generic, personality-free style. The scenes of tender romance are undeniably affecting, it’s just that the less-accomplished moments surrounding them turn Testament of Youth into a kind of heavily diluted Atonement.