LFF film review: Testament of Youth Print
Written by Ivan Radford   
Tuesday, 14 October 2014 18:43

Director: James Kent
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Colin Morgan
Showtimes: Oct 14th, Oct 16th, Oct 17th

Another British war movie marches on Leicester Square tonight, but Testament of Youth brings a rousing new side of WWI to the London Film Festival. Based on the memoir of Vera Brittain, it's an account of conflict that couldn't be more different to LFF opener, The Imitation Game; this is poetry to its maths; literature to its science; female to its male.

While it might sound reductive to associate romantic verse with women, it's indicative of the time in which Vera lived. When she tells her parents (an enjoyably uptight Emily Watson and Dominic West) that she wants to go to Oxford instead of marry a fine, rich fellow, they strongly disapprove. But go she does, only to fall for Roland (Kit Harington), a friend of her brother (Taron Egerton), who shares her ambitions of becoming a professional writer. Inevitably, war breaks out - and Roland is shipped overseas along with her brother and his friends.

Normally, at this point, we would follow the soldiers through the mud and blood of the trenches. But Testament of Youth lingers on British soil, as Vera struggles to cope with life - and a seemingly endless wave of loss. That oft-overlooked focus is what gives Testament of Youth, an otherwise tame movie, its emotional heft. Director James Kent shoots the period scenes solidly, but treats his subject with a timidity that borders on tasteful ITV drama. Nonetheless, the cast elevates the movie above its practical presentation.

It helps that it is compromised of so many excellent young actors. Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, Kit Harington and Jonathan Bailey all play the central men and their fresh faces only emphasise the tragedy of conflict. In the middle of it all, Alicia Vikander is breathtaking as Vera; beautiful, sad and almost trembling with a passion kept beneath the surface. Quitting Oxford to volunteer as a nurse, she is determined to match the male sacrifice on the field with a female act at home. The fact that we spend more time with her than on the front gives the occasional intrusions of dirty browns and reds on the bright domestic palette an impact that could well have been lacking from a more familiar tale. Indeed, this is less a war film (or even a wartime romance) and more a film about a woman striving to overcome the war; even Harington, Morgan and Vikander's love triangle, complete with letter-writing (that most perilous feature of period drama), manages to move.

By the end of WWI, as society appears not to have learned from the past four years, Vera delivers a heartfelt speech about grief, reconciliation and those left behind. It's undeniably stirring stuff.