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‘A worthy memorial to a lost generation’: Testament Of Youth review
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TESTAMENT Of Youth is a fresh, immediate, personal testimony that speaks across the ages
By HENRY FITZHERBERT
Director: James Kent
Stars: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Dominic West, Emily Watson
Watch out Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Emily Blunt. There’s a new English rose in town and she is not even English. Step forward Sweden’s Alicia Vikander, hitherto best known for Danish Oscar-winner A Royal Affair.
Now she has snaffled the role of a great British feminist, Vera Brittain, in a moving adaptation of Brittain’s classic First World War memoir Testament Of Youth and she is brilliant: vibrantly alive, intelligent and sympathetic. Oh, and gorgeous.
What greater contrast to the horrors of war could there be than Brittain’s youth, beauty and promise, all encapsulated so powerfully by the 26-year-old Vikander?
It is by concentrating on the hopes and ideals of its characters and largely steering clear of the battlefields that Testament Of Youth derives its interest, power and sense of tragedy.
Directed by James Kent from a sharp screenplay by Juliette Towhidi, this is no dusty history piece or judgmental look back at the past but a fresh, immediate, personal testimony that speaks across the ages.
Brittain is portrayed as very modern but not in a way that feels anachronistic, merely relatable. The daughter of a well-to-do industrialist in Derbyshire she is determined to accompany her beloved brother Edward (Taron Egerton) to Oxford University and pursue her dream of becoming a writer. She has a lively mind and stubborn personality. You might even say she is a pain in the neck.
All this is deftly sketched in the opening scenes when we see Vera throwing a strop because her father (Dominic West) has bought her a piano, symbol of her parents’ conventional aspirations for their only daughter. She would rather the money be spent sending her to Oxford.
“You’re turning yourself into a bluestocking!” splutters West. However, she has allies in her likeable brother Edward and his dashing school pal Roland Leighton (an excellent Kit Harington) with whom romance blossoms.
Vera is set to join Roland at Oxford and a glorious future beckons for all, but the war changes everything. What unfolds is a compelling, beautifully acted story in which arguably the best of humanity; youthful idealism and aspiration, comes up against the worst. Quite unexpectedly.
Brittain may be forward-thinking but she is not blessed with any kind of foresight. Indeed, she is so wrapped up in her personal ambitions the brewing conflict barely registers. This adds to the poignancy and immediacy of the drama as we remain wrapped up in Vera’s world and the hopefulness of a whole generation.
When war is declared the sense of patriotism and excitement is palpable. Vera herself argues with her father to allow Edward to sign up.
It is the vitality of the characters, rather than the battlefield horrors, that brings home the tragedy and sense of loss. Vera cannot stay “buried in books” at Oxford so volunteers as a nurse and experiences the suffering for herself, first in London then in France to be near her brother.
It is deeply sad and tragic (even if you don’t know the story there are few surprises) but there is a lasting sense of hopefulness in Brittain’s humanity: in France she tends to wounded Germans.
Produced by David Heyman (Harry Potter, Paddington) A Testament Of Youth is a Best of British production that stands as a worthy memorial to a lost generation without feeling remotely worthy itself.
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