Director: James Kent
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Hayley Atwell, Dominic West, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson
Written by: Juliette Towhidi and (based on the autobiography) Vera Britten
Running Time: 129 mins
Release date: 16th January 2015
Based on the autobiography of writer Vera Brittain, Testament Of Youth is regarded highly by those who have read it as an important documentation of what it was like for a young girl during the First World War. So I really wanted to like this new film version. While it is scrumptious to look at and the performances are nicely handled, it came across far too polite and restrained to really have the emotional punch it needed and, unfortunately, I found it a crushing bore.
Vear Brittain comes from a middle-class family, whose father believes that her daughter should marry and play the piano than follow her dream of attending Oxford and becoming a writer. Refusing to allow that to happen, Vera is persistent until her father caves in and she gets to go to University. At the same time, she meets Roland, a dashing young man whom she falls in love with. With war looming and Roland’s insistence to fight for his country, Vera decides she has to help in the war effort and become a nurse, yet tragedy is about to change her life.
The story of Vera Brittain is obviously a fascinating one. A mix of love and life during a time of great confusion and despair, However, director James Kent, who has a strong sense of the beautiful, doesn’t really understand about pacing. The first half hour is perfect, introducing the key characters and giving us a sense of period, yet it’s all done in a very twee and safe manner. This set up follows throughout the film and so when we are supposed to be emotionally involved with a situation, it feels somewhat distant.
There is an important key scene in the film (I will try not to give anything away) which just felt a little too convenient. Having not read the book, it’s hard for me to say if it did actually happen but the way the scene is played out, it’s one of the emotional high points and yet it left me cold.
Kent also seemed far too interested in trivial things. Shots of corn blowing in the wind. Close-ups of eyes, hands running over blossom, sunlight through trees. all very pretty and all very sweet but signifying very little. There’s also a lot of shots of Vera staring into the middle distance that seem to jar the action to an abrupt halt.
The performances seem unbalanced too. Dominic West and Emily Watson as Vera’s parents, are given very little to do, as is Hayley Atwell as a nurse Vera meets. Miranda Richardson lights up the screen every time she appears as Vera’s eccentric Oxford professor, while Kit Harington, as Roland, looks dashing enough and is perfectly fine, yet you feel you want more.
As Vera, Alicia Vikander is extremely good. Having to carry the film, she does a masterful job, playing a young girl ahead of her time, determined not to be tied down to the things a woman of that time is supposed to do. An independent, free-spirit with a love for poetry and a even greater love for life. She captures Vera superbly. Although I do have a quibble here too. As good as Vikander is, I didn’t understand why they chose a Swedish actress to play a quintessential English Rose. There are moments when her Scandinavian native accent slips in, which does become intrusive.
Testament Of Youth should have been a masterpiece. Instead it drags its heels far too often and you spend most of the time wondering when it will end. It certainly feels longer than its 129 minute running time. I know there will be people out there who will enjoy the leisurely pacing and cinematography. I just felt hugely disappointed.