Testament of Youth, based on a memoir of the same name, follows a strong young woman bound for Oxford, who abandons her studies to become a nurse in the First World War. The story is one of love and loss, and Alicia Vikander is absolutely stunning as “Vera Brittain.”
Directed by James Kent. Screenplay by Juliette Towhidi. A must see. (JEP: 4.5/5)
Review by Contributing Editor Jessica E. Perry
This British drama, based on the critically acclaimed memoir Testament of Youth, is beautifully done. The film tells the story of a young woman named “Vera Brittain” (Alicia Vikander), and her experiences over the course of the First World War.
Brittain is a stubborn, yet strong young woman who has no desire to walk the expected path of a well-bred lady of her time. Instead, she has dreams of going to study at Oxford, and with the support of her brother “Edward” (Taron Egerton), she convinces their father (Dominic West) to let her take the entrance exam. When the test does not go according to plan, Vera is convinced her dreams are over and that she must now succumb to the duties her family expects of her. However, when a letter of acceptance to Somerville College (Oxford) arrives in the mail, she packs up her things immediately and embraces her future.
All the while, stirrings of war are quietly brought to the viewer’s attention. As Vera explores the beautiful English countryside with Edward, and falls deeply in love with Edward’s friend “Roland Leighton” (Kit Harington), we watch their world unravel, as peaceful times become wartime.
When news of the war breaks, Roland is the first of their set to volunteer and Edward soon follows. Suddenly, Vera’s life has been turned upside down. Her studies, which once seemed so important, now hold little value as war claims the men she loves.
So Vera abandons her place at Oxford to become a war nurse. The things she sees, the men she saves, and the pain she experiences make for a harrowing and emotionally charged story. We watch Vera’s strength throughout the turmoil of the war, and her resilience to put her life back together after the fighting has finally come to an end.
Testament of Youth is a superb film; there is no other way to put it. Director James Kent and writer Juliette Towhidi have both done their jobs beautifully, creating a stunning screen adaptation of Vera Brittain’s acclaimed memoir. Kent’s extensive use of flashback and insert shots could have felt heavy-handed, but they never did. Instead, Kent gave the viewer access to Brittain’s innermost thoughts and feelings as her love story with Roland develops.
Alicia Vikander is stunning as Vera Brittain. What’s more, her strong performance is not a rarity among the young cast. Instead, Egerton as Vera’s brother and Harington as Vera’s lover both keep pace with Vikander; rarely stumbling, they both deliver superb supporting performances. Testament of Youth stays with you well after the credits roll. Go see it; this is a “Must See” film.
© Jessica E. Perry FF2 Media (6/12/15)
Top Photo: “Vera” (Alicia Vikander) at Oxford.
Middle Photo: Vera trains as a nurse.
Bottom Photo: Vikander with Kit Harington as poet “Roland Leighton.”
Photo Credits: Laurence Cendrowicz/Sony Pictures Classics
Q: Does Testament of Youth pass the Bechdel Test?
The members of Somerville College (Oxford) are all women, including the formidable head mistress “Miss Lorimer” (played with spine of steel by Miranda Richardson). Well, of course! Somerville College was originally founded in 1879 as one of England’s first women’s colleges. The nurses with whom Vera trains and serves are all women too.
Vera also has a poignant relationship with her mother (played by Oscar-nominated actress Emily Watson), who never understands or supports her daughter’s decisions. When Vera returns home from the Front, her mother (known only in the credits as “Mrs. Brittain” with no fist name of her own) asks very little about Vera’s war experiences, talking instead about how her own life has changed since the war. (They have lost their cook. There is no butter at the market.)
Vera must restrain herself from lashing out at her mother who knows nothing of the real horrors of war, the horrors that Vera has just seen.
Additional Thoughts by Jan Lisa Huttner Managing Editor FF2 Media
I read Testament of Youth way back in college and it made an indelible impression on me. Decades later, I can’t claim to remember enough details to know how faithful this Kent/Towhidi version is as “an adaptation,” but I can certainly attest to the overall feel of it.
One thought associated with Vera Brittain stuck with me all these years, and after the credits rolled, I googled to see if I had distorted it. Thank God for Google! I was able to find the quote I wanted in seconds, and it was almost exactly as I remembered it:
“Between 1914 and 1919 young men and women, disastrously pure in heart and unsuspicious of elderly self-interest and cynical exploitation, were continually re-dedicating themselves – as I did that morning in Boulogne – to an end that they believed, and went on trying to believe, lofty and ideal.”―Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth
Watching Testament of Youth at the tail end of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars–after Allied “boots on the ground” have by and large been withdrawn, leaving devastation in their wake, both at home and abroad–these words are even more haunting than they were when I first read them. (I can’t provide an exact date, but in the early 70s, when I was a college student, the Vietnam War had peaked and was slowly–albeit painfully–winding down.)
Yes, I know all about Hitler. As a Jewish film critic, I live in a continuous on screen Holocaust. And yes, I know all about ISIS, Boko Haram, and all the other monsters who rain terror on our world today.
But as I read Vera Brittain’s words above, what strikes me most is that whatever “The Cause” is and however “just” we may find it–either at the time or later in our history books–the dynamic always replicates itself just as VB says: the idealism of the young is cynically exploited by the powers-that-be (who are invariably older, richer, and better connected). Edward, Roland, and all their comrades-in-arms are mere “cannon fodder,” and Vera, Miss Lorimer, Mrs. Brittain and all the other women–wherever and however they may “serve”–are left to mourn their losses for the rest of their lives.
And yet, barely have these young heroes have been buried when the powers-that-be–who were all men then and are still almost all men now–start planting the seeds of the next war. The Kent/Towhidi version of Testament of Youth ends with Vera saying this in so many words. We paint them as “monsters,” but simultaneously they are painting us as “monsters” too. The demand for vengeance–in her case epitomized by the Treaty of Versailles with its impossibly arduous reparations clauses as well as the parceling out of conquered territory to new colonial masters–will inevitably lead to a new war…
And of course we now know that history proved Vera Brittain 100% correct. There was a new war after “The War to End All Wars”–we now call it World War II–plus ongoing wars in the Middle East and elsewhere based on the Eurocentric new borders drawn by the “victors” at Versailles.
Although I agree with everything Jess says above, I wouldn’t be me without pointing to the many strong female supporting performances in Testament of Youth. Miranda Richardson is excellent as stern “Miss Lorimer.” She does, after all, break the rules when she admits Vera to Somerville College, proving that she was a rare woman who recognized precious qualities in others.
I also have a bit more sympathy for Mrs. Brittain than Jess does. It is certainly true that “Vera must restrain herself from lashing out at her mother who knows nothing of the real horrors of war, the horrors that Vera has just seen.” But Emily Watson–through her delicate performance–is able to show us that this is all just patter. In fact, Mrs. Brittain is desperately afraid for her son Edward… with good reason.
It is one of the added sorrows of Mrs. Brittain’s life that her only daughter has so little sympathy for her, and can therefore do nothing to comfort her. Mrs. Brittain’s life is the very life her daughter rejects in order to become a New Woman of the 20th Century, but we can still to honor her pain–the pain of a befuddled loser in what we would now call a “Culture War”–without merely negating Mrs. Brittain’s 19th Century point of view.
I count on all lovers of Downton Abbey to know just what I mean.
All that said, I must admit that I thought this Kent/Towhidi version sagged a bit at the start of Act III and for me that means “the whole is equal to the sum of its parts” rather than “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Sad to say, one of the weak links is Kit Harington who seems just a bit too old, buff, and manly to succeed in the critical role of “Roland Leighton” (who was dead well before his 21st birthday). Most readers will know Harington from Game of Thrones, but since I rarely watch TV (because I am up to my neck in critics screenings, preview DVDs & Vimeo links), I did not encounter him until Pompeii 3D. in which, he quickened my pulse as “Milo the Celt.” His love scenes with Cassia (Emily Browning) were as hot as Vesuvius! Yowza! But in Testament of Youth? Not so much…
It’s not my job to tell directors and screenwriters what they should have done. Should they have shown us a bit of Vera’s relationship with Roland’s famous mother Marie Connor (Anna Chancellor) who was, after all, a successful female writer? Should they have shown us more scenes of Vera with the other nurses? Should they simply have tightened up the 129 minute runtime? Who knows?
All I can say is what worked and what didn’t work for me. I wanted Testament of Youth to be superlative, but I’m forced to say it’s merely extremely good, with indelible scenes of mayhem and mourning which should serve as a wake up call every time elderly leaders of any cause or country begin calling forth a new set of young boots-on-the-ground.
That still makes Testament of Youth–starring Alicia Vikander as the perfect embodiment of Vera Britain—a MUST SEE, and on this Jess and I agree 🙂 (JLH: 4/5)
Addendum © Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (6/14/15)
Top Photo: “Vera” (Alicia Vikander) with Miranda Richardson as “Miss Lorimer” at Oxford.
Middle Photo: Vera with her “Aunt Belle” (Joanna Scanlan) who serves as chaperone during her meet-ups with Roland.
Final Photo: Vikander with Emily Watson and Dominic West as “Mr. & Mrs. Brittain.” (Note that the young girl in front–whoever she is–is not a member of the Brittain family. She’s just part of the crowd.)
Photo Credits: Laurence Cendrowicz/Sony Pictures Classics