Testament of Youth is a terribly worthy British effort from last year which deals with the wholly laudable story of Vera Brittain: pacifist, war diarist, woman and all round good egg.
I have no qualms with any of this whatsoever. As a concept, I’m pretty staunchly pro. My issue lies with the execution of the story, not with the story itself. This, for fear of accusations of misogyny, is something I feel I must make clear early on. Go Vera! Boo, Testament of Youth.
An illustrative example: we first meet Vera when she is frolicking in a lake believed to be full of rats. Demonstrating no basic safety awareness or forethought, she swims with gay abandon ignoring the protestations of her brother. Then she petulantly asks to stay out rather than go home, and then she throws a tantrum about having a piano bought for her by Dominic West. I suspect that the intention here is for the viewer to admire her headstrong and independent spirit but the truth is she comes across as capricious and irritating. This, in many ways, sums up the film. If anything like me, you spend the entire duration of the thing thinking “well, I can see what they were trying to do but my word that seems cack-handed”.
Then Jon Snow turns up. He’s had a shave and a haircut but it’s definitely him. He’s learnt a new facial expression: a wistful, indulgent sort of smile, it’s enchanting. Or at least, it is supposed to be. He shows her his poems and, spunky little sprite that she is, she criticises them. The net result of her pissing on his dreams is an almost instantaneous love eruption between the two of them. I mention this as it leads me to my next point which is an over reliance on lazy, hack shorthand. Let us be fair with one another, this is a film that deals with the Great War. I doubt there can be many of us with no knowledge of this and so to feature these zesty young shavers tramping over the heath delievering lines like “I can see my whole life stretching out before me!” strikes me as devastingly obvious signposting that SOMETHING BAD MIGHT HAPPEN.
This happens throughout. The film seems incapable of letting circumstances play out in any way naturalistically and this is a tremendous shame. I found myself feeling slightly irritated by obvious juxtaposition intended to highlight the role of women (talk of hats while the men read newspapers with “Archduke Shot!” headines).We aren’t stupid. Not everything needs to be spelled out. It’s a drama that features no drama. The story encompasses years but it feels as though little happens.
Ultimately, the film would like you to know that War is a Bad Thing. But then, you already knew that. If you didn’t, then please, with my compliments, enjoy Testament of Youth. Enjoy a film that shows a cut from tears on a list of the dead to rain in the trenches of the Somme.
The always delightful Dominic West is under-used in his role as the Brittain patriarch and the film looks beautiful. The music is also sensational. Honestly, I wanted to love it. I really did. I feel so let down.
Dir: James Kent
Scr: Juliette Towhidi, based on the novel by Vera Brittain
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, Miranda Richardson, Dominic West, Emily Watson
Prd: Rosie Alison, David Heyman
DOP: Rob Hardy
Music: Max Richter
Run time: 129 mins
Testament of Youth is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital via Lionsgate Home Entertainment.