Saturday 6 June 2015


(James Kent, 2015)

Though it plays and feels very much like a modern BBC period production - all tasteful costumes and furnishings, semi-repressed passions and clipped accents - Testament of Youth works much better than that suggests. It has an earnest, even stirring sense of passionate feeling absent from much period drama. That is probably because it is about the effect of the First World War on a generation of young Britons, and as such, much of the story is suffused with a sense of loss, sadness and grief. Not only that, but here we see that effect through the eyes of a woman.
Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) is a headstrong, intelligent young woman who yearns to go to Oxford, and needs no husband. And then she meets her brothers friend Roland (Kit Harington) and falls in love; at first tentatively, and then in a headlong rush of romance, poetry and excitement. These scenes are full of sensual details reminiscent of a sort of watered down Malick or Wong Kar Wai. Sheets blow on lines, heathers ripples in the breeze, there are extended shots - fleeting, as if in memory - of Roland's arm and neck. While Vikander is sensational, Harington is a little dull in that first act, but improves during the passage when he returns, traumatised, on leave, and Vera has to shock him back to her.
And then, of course, he dies. As does her brother and all of his friends. WW1 destroys the world and the people she loves, and as she has signed up as a nurse and witnessed horrors of her own, it almost destroys her too.
Vera's journey is dark and full of pain, and Vikander is fearless in confronting that. Just as good and in fewer scenes is Dominic West, as her stiff-upper-lip father, who collapses upon losing his son. Taron Egerton is all charm and enthusiasm as that brother and Hayley Atwell brings a welcome touch of lightness to the role of a businesslike matron on the front. The structure nicely evokes the sense of an innocent world destroyed by an epochal apocalypse, and though Kent reveals a sensitivity to performance in his direction, he never formally echoes this, which is something of a shame.
But still; stolid and solid as this is, it always works, and is consistently powerful and impressive.

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