Rating: 3.5 out of 5
A classic British memoir gets the full costume drama treatment with this beautifully crafted World War I drama, although it never quite transcends the "beloved book" tone, remaining so worthy that it only rarely springs to life. The acting is sharp, as is the filmmaking, so it's frustrating that there's so little in the film that resonates with present-day audiences. And as the story sinks into a murky gloom, it's difficult for audiences to stay engaged.
Based on Vera Brittain's iconic memoir, the story opens in 1914, as Vera (Alicia Vikander) begs her parents (Emily Watson and Dominic West) to let her sit entrance exams at Oxford, which simply isn't the done thing for a proper young woman. She also has to convince them to let her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) sign up for military service in response to the conflict breaking out in Europe. But Vera is shocked when her sweetheart Roland (Kit Harington) also decides to enlist along with two close friends (Colin Morgan and Jonathan Bailey). Suddenly the war seems far too close to home for her. So she's provoked to leave university and volunteer as a nurse, serving in both England and France while the war rages around her.
The film's opening section contains a beautiful spark of hopefulness as these young people face the possibilities ahead of them, revelling in their education and then deciding to do their duty for their country. The rising-star cast packs the characters with cheeky humour, high energy and, yes, suitably repressed Britishness. But of course the realities of WWI change everything. Vikander handles this mood-swing very nicely, conveying Vera's resilience as she is bombarded with intense emotions. Her chemistry with Harington is strong, packed with passion. And the surrounding cast is terrific, even if most of the roles are relatively slight. The stand-outs are Richardson as a prickly Oxford professor and Atwell as a feisty fellow nurse.
First-time director Jonathan Kent assembles this gorgeously, never letting the lush period detail overwhelm the story while focussing rightly on the characters' inner feelings. So the only problem is where these feelings take the audience, because as the war drags on, so does the film, creating a sense of hopelessness that makes each death almost inevitable. Yes, this is how things really were at the time, but director Kent and writer Juliette Towhidi struggle to inject a sense of hope in what becomes a rather maudlin story. But at least this makes the film thoughtful and moving. And it beautifully highlights Brittain's strong pacifist message.
Testament of Youth Trailer
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Facts and Figures
Run time: 129 mins
Distributed by: Lionsgate Films UK
Production compaines: Heyday Films, BBC Films
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Fresh: 9 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Cast & Crew
Director: James Kent
Producer: David Heyman, Rosie Alison
Screenwriter: Juliette Towhidi
Starring: Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain, Kit Harington as Roland Leighton, Hayley Atwell as Hope, Dominic West as Mr. Brittain, Emily Watson as Mrs. Brittain, Colin Morgan as Victor Richardson, Anna Chancellor as Mrs. Leighton, Miranda Richardson as Miss Lorimer, Taron Egerton as Edward Brittain