‘Testament of Youth’: Film Review

A best of British effort in every respect, this handsome production consistently impresses

Alicia Vikander plays a WWI English nurse in this adaptation of Vera Brittain's much-treasured memoir of love and war

Striking an elegantly sustained balance between intimacy and historical scope, director James Kent's WWI-set epic Testament of Youth encompasses nearly all of the virtues of classical British period drama and nearly none of the vices. A respectful fileting of Vera Brittain's hefty 600-page memoir, first published in 1933, the picture stars fast-ascending Swedish talent Alicia Vikander(A Royal Affair, Anna Karenina, the upcoming The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as the indomitable Brittain, a young Englishwoman from a well-to-do background who experienced the horrors of war firsthand. The rest of the cast is rounded out by an impressively eclectic roll-call of relative unknowns (Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan), rising British stars (Kit Harington from Game of Thrones, Alexandra Roach from The Iron Lady) and veterans (Dominic West, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson), all finely cast.

Scheduled to open locally in January 2015, Testament could prove to be a sleeper hit with its cross-quadrant appeal to older audiences who treasured the book and the 1979 BBC mini-series as well as youngsters drawn by the handsome cast, tragic love story and built-in history lesson.  Abroad, distributors will need to drum up critical support and use canny marketing to attract viewers who like high-quality, Masterpiece Theater-style entertainment.

Even for viewers who know diddly-squat about Brittain, the book and its spin-offs, those sensitive to cinematic atmosphere will glean that something bad is going to happen any minute when the action starts in 1914. Everything looks that little bit too magic-hour, light-flare-pretty idyllic when we first meet the characters. As it happens, the filmmakers have adopted a slow-burn approach, allowing enough time for viewers to invest in the characters before the atrocities commence.

Raised in rural Derbyshire (although the locations used were mostly in Yorkshire), whip-smart, if somewhat stroppy teenage beauty Vera (Vikander) and her kind-hearted brother Edward (Egerton) are the offspring of a successful industrialist (West) and his sweet bourgeois wife (Watson). Much to her father's chagrin, Vera is already a bit of a bluestocking who wants to study at Oxford. She can already hold her own in discussions of poetry and ideas with Edward and his prep-school friends, gentle Victor (Morgan) and the more confident Roland Leighton (Harington) with whom Vera sparks romantically. However, she must contend with the sexism of the period, which insists that young ladies of her class should stay at home and practice the pianoforte, while the sexual repression of the era dictates that a chaperone (Joanna Scanlon) must always be present for her outings with Roland. They barely get a chance to hold hands, and yet Robert Hardy's tactile cinematography and the use of quick, sensual flashbacks is sufficient to suggest the erotic heat between them.

Producers David Heyman (the Harry Potter series, Gravity) and Rosie Alison (The Boy In Striped Pyjamas), and director Kent (making his feature debut here after a number of documentaries and dramas for British TV), adeptly pull the levers so as to decrease on the romance plot by increments and bring up the volume on the looming war. Soon, all the young men are signing up to fight in a conflict everyone, including Vera, predicts will be over by Christmas.  

As we know, it didn't work out that way. However, by sticking closely to Vera's point of view, serviced further by voiceover readings from her letters, the film gets across in a personal way the horrifying scale of the war, for example when she scans the acres of newspapers listings each day for the names of those who have "fallen" in combat.

Elsewhere, shots of men in the trenches and later, via a Gone With the Wind-style crane shot of the wounded at a field hospital, compensate for the lack of combat scenes, illustrating what we need to know about the soldiers' experience. While still keeping the focus on the heroine, the well-researched script by Juliette Towhidi (Calendar Girls) manages to individualize the men in Vera's life through small scenes and details, fleshing out the fact, for instance, that Edward is probably gay and Victor carries and unrequited torch for Vera. Unsurprisingly, the almost-impossibly likeable and worthy Roland makes the biggest impression, especially in scenes where Harington's voiceover reads poems by the real Leighton that he wrote Vera from the front.

Previously best known for playing the scowling, deeply boring Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, Harington is a revelation here, displaying a range and a lightness of touch that's as surprising as it is refreshing. It helps that he's so easy on the eye, of course, but then nearly all the younger actors are impeccably pretty, as if to underscore what a great loss to the gene pool the war to end all wars was. But the rest of the supporting cast are no slouches either, and even with their much  smaller roles several manage to make indelible impressions, particularly West with a howl of despair (delivered off camera no less) and Richardson with a touchingly underplayed scene when she receives news of a death. There are a lot of telegrams and phone calls throughout, nearly every one of them a harbinger of death, a slightly repetitive device.

In the end, though, Vikander owns the movie, making this a very auspicious breakout in her first leading role in an English-language production. Technically, it's hard to fault: she nails the accent, cries convincingly on cue, and has an astonishing physical presence. But what's even more impressive is the way she puts across Vera's intelligence, her cussedness (she's even a bit of a pain in the neck sometimes), and it's the quieter moments that impress most, especially coupled with the way Kent and Co tactically underplay certain key emotional scenes in order to deliver a bigger pay off later. That said, the filmmakers are not afraid to really milk an emotional moment, like a farewell on a train platform that audaciously reinvigorates a war-film cliche of yore.

In terms of craftsmanship, Testament is an exemplar of all the best things about British films. Budgeted at $10 million, it looks the bomb, like something that cost a lot more. Consolata Boyle's lavish costume design, period perfect but knitted with nuance that reveals character, is especially deserving of praise, as is Jon Henson's thoughtfully coordinated production design. Max Richter's soundtrack sometimes sounds slightly too similar to his previous film scores elsewhere, but it still has a majestic beauty, with tiny aural echoes of War Requiem, a musical memorial written by another great Britten, Benjamin.

Production companies: A BBC Films, Heyday Films, Screen Yorkshire, BFI presentation of a Heyday Films production in association with Hotwells Productions, Nordisk Film Production and Lipsync
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan, Dominic West, Emily Watson, Joanna Scanlan, Miranda Richardson, Jonathan Bailey, Henry Garrett, Hayley Atwell, Alexandra Roach, Nicholas Le Prevost, Anna Chancellor
Director: James Kent
Screenwriter:Juliette Towhidi
Producers: David Heyman, Rosie Alison
Executive producers:Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Richard Mansell, Hugo Heppell, Zygi Kamasa
Director of photography: Robert Hardy
Production designer: Jon Henson
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Editor: Lucia Zucchetti
Music: Max Richter
Casting: Lucy Bevan
Sales: Protagonist Pictures

No rating, 129 minutes