A Review of Testament of Youth, Directed by James Kent
Testament of Youth, is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, which traces the experiences of the wildly intelligent writer Vera Brittain throughout World War I. Her compelling journey begins as she defies convention by winning a place to study English Literature at Oxford University before women could graduate with a degree. Despite initially declaring herself to be disinterested in marriage, she soon falls in love with her brother’s intriguing friend Roland. They begin a correspondence of poetic compositions and stolen hours before tragedy leads her to abandon academia and follow him to war as a voluntary nurse.
Known for her defiant feminism, this film illustrates the perpetual suffering that Vera endured on her grievous journey to eventual pacifism. A story of blossoming love, sacrifice and resilience, James Kent’s direction captures the spirit of the first stage of Vera’s memoirs, which defined her as the voice of a generation. From the opening scene of breathless gaiety by the lake, we are immersed in a truly British coming-of-age tale. Starring the Swedish beauty Alicia Vikander alongside Kit Harington and Taron Egerton, the young, vivacious cast bring Vera's memoirs to life, with a depth of feeling that puts the triviality of Fifty Shades of Grey to shame.
The poetic cinematography was so entrancing that it nearly overshadowed the solemnity of the narrative. Entwining us in an enchanting labyrinth of wildflowers, seascapes and delicate love letters, the film was initially a light-hearted affair. Though, the juxtaposition of warfare and the beauty of the English countryside was carefully woven throughout, so not to compromise the austerity of the subject matter. Like many a naive millennial, I am prone to romanticising war as the setting of star crossed love affairs and liberated emotion, but Kent is careful not to underplay the depth of the lost generation’s suffering.
Testament of Youth was one of those remarkable films, which perfectly balanced the misery and violence of the front line, with endless reflection upon the natural beauty of Great Britain, which our soldier’s sought to protect. We are not forced to reconcile the differing perspectives of the soldiers and their loved ones, but instead there is a graceful confluence between their wartime experiences. A particularly poignant image was that of a woeful Vera standing alone in her anguish by the waves. Her diaphanous lace gown drifts around her like a Pre-Raphaelite painting, as the diamonds in her ears reflect the melancholia of the grey sky. Indeed, it is the wordless, but deeply emotional moments like this when the actors’ skill is truly illustrated. Although my contemporaries wept around me, I felt somewhat obliged to remain focused and expressionless. There is no doubt that I was overwhelmed with emotion, but because Vera’s character was so enthralling, I felt a strange need to emulate the resilience of this young woman who was so close to my age when she bore so much loss.
Following the 100-year anniversary of the beginning of World War I, it felt timely to be reconnected with the ‘lost generation’ as they are known. As a student and writer I found it particularly poignant, because it forced me to reflect upon the immense value of the university education, which I so often take for granted. Those young men and women were forced to abandon the academia, which they so loved, to face an existence dominated by brutality and grief. Vera’s eventual turn to pacifism would ordinarily seem incomprehensible, but given the experiences and emotion we shared with her, no one could question her integrity.
When you observe the sacrifices made by the characters in this film, it is somewhat illuminating to reflect upon what war means to our generation. Following the monstrosity of the terror attacks in Paris earlier this year as well as the endless violence in Nigeria, Syria and beyond, it feels like we are entering a World War of our own. Very few of us are sacrificing our own lives or our loved ones, but instead we rely on modern 'battlefields' like social media to vocalise our support, protestations and opinions from a safe place. As controversial as it may be, I wonder whether Vera would think campaigns like je suis charlie are doing any good to society or whether they are simply fuelling the fire?
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com