Title: Testament Of Youth
Director: James Kent
Major Players: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Dominic West
Out Of Five: 3.5
Making comparisons can be all too easy. Much as I try to avoid them, I know I’ve done it and I know I’m going to do it here, because it’s part of the reason why Testament Of Youth didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
The film is based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain. Raised in middle class comfort in Derbyshire, she was determined to get to Oxford and made it – just as World War I broke out. She sees her brother, his friend and her first, and hitherto, only love all sign up and to off to fight. Worse still, during the course of the war, she loses three of them and is left alone to find her place in the world. And all this happens when she’s just in her early 20s.
Let’s get the comparison out of the way. There was another version of the story, on TV back in 1979, with Cheryl Campbell as Vera and Peter Woodward as Roland, the man she loved. I watched it at the time and was bowled over by it, although after over 30 years my memory of it has faded somewhat. But my most distinct memory was of the almost nerve-tingling tension between the two lovers who, because of the conventions of the day, never got further than a kiss. The intensity was almost unbearable, for them and us – although I have to fess up to being slightly older than the characters at the time, and that could account for my reaction.
But, for whatever reason, I simply didn’t feel that same intensity and passion between the new Vera (Alicia Vikander) and Roland (Kit Harington). They’re an appealing couple to look at, but they simply don’t have that crucial spark that makes his death so devastating. Director James Kent has probably been too faithful to the emotional restraint demanded at the time, so that Vikander’s Vera keeps her feelings buried so deep that there’s hardly anything to read on her face. By the same token, Kit Harington’s Roland sometimes looks more sulky than sultry. Put together, the connection between them is way more tenuous than it should be.
Maybe restraint is the key word. As is youth. Nobody should have to go through Vera’s experiences at any age, but especially at such a tender one. Yet thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, did. Her book gave them a voice at a time when they were expected to stay quiet. But it was more than that: it was a howl of anguish that continues to echo down the decades. Which makes it more than a little strange that the film is released this month, rather than last year as part of the World War I commemorations. That same restraint runs through the Brittain family as a whole and overflows into the entire movie, making it both moving and filling some of the emotional gap created by the depiction of Vera and Roland.
The cinematography is from Rob Hardy, who was also behind the camera on The Invisible Woman, and he’s come up with some striking images. Perhaps the most memorable is the field of wounded at Etaples, during the time when Vera is a nurse in France. Shot from on high, the camera moves back slowly to reveal row upon row of dead and dying on stretchers in the mud, punctuated only with the odd dot of white – all of them nurses, trying against the odds to bring them some comfort. It’s a powerful shot, with just a touch of Gone With The Wind about it.
Testament Of Youth is a faithful and respectful translation of Vera Brittain’s memoirs to the big screen and comes complete with the approval of her daughter, Shirley Williams. In the main, it’s emotional and convincing, especially the empassioned speech towards the end which carries the film’s entire message. OK, that’s a touch too obvious, but it’s still full of the necessary conviction. But the relationship at the core of the film simply doesn’t have the same ring of truth and that puts the film on shaky ground.
Testament Of Youth opens around the UK on 16 January 2015.