By Emma Silverthorn @HouseOf_Gazelle
As the year that marks the centenary of World War One comes to a close the expected glut of films documenting that period has not manifest. James Kent and Juliette Towhidi’s adaptation of Vera Brittain’s doorstop of a memoir Testament of Youth standing alone as the most high profile WW1 film of the year. The film is a tear-jerker, has some lovely moments visually, (one scene that was particularly striking was a shot of a Paul Nash-esque post-battle landscape), and a great attention to period detail but considering that Brittain herself would have at the time been labelled as a firebrand and bluestocking this adaptation does feel rather safe. Brittain’s rebellion is touched on, her fight to attend Oxford University, her desire to join the Suffragette movement and towards the end of the film, the beginnings of her pacifism, but for the most part Towhidi’s script focuses on the more traditional aspects of Brittain’s story.
Lead Alicia Vikander is an unusual choice for Vera, most obviously because she is Swedish, my plus one at the screening noticed within the first ten minutes of the film that her accent was off and that she wasn’t English. A little distracting in a film that is so much about British heritage. Aside from accent Vikander’s interpretation of Vera is understated, her grief manifesting in a single teardrop down the cheek, rather than hysterics. This understatement works well and Vikander manages to pour a lot of emotion into the smallest of facial expressions, though over the hour and half of the film and with all the loss Brittain undergoes during that time, I did find myself wanting a bit more energy brought to the role. The whole ensemble cast from Dominic West as Vera’s father, to Kit Harrington as her fiancé Roland Leighton, to Miranda Richardson as feminist Dean at Oxford are played well though none stand out as exceptional.
Plot-wise Kent and Towhidi choose to leave Brittain on the cusp of her burgeoning pacifism, where as the book extensively covers this post-war activism. At the films closing Brittain, having lost almost all of the men in her life, seems to be at a place of both forgiveness and possible renewal, as is clear in her solo symbolic return to the lake where she once swam with her brother and male friends prior to the war. It’s all rather neat, satisfying and hopeful in a way, but this (and much of the films tone) felt more appropriate to a television Sunday afternoon drama than to a feature film. One to show school-age children as a part of their World War syllabus.
Testament of Youth is indeed a poignant reminder of the loss of a generation, emphasising the role of both men and women during the years of fighting and significantly highlights the naivety with which many entered the war, all worthy feats, yet this adaptation didn’t I feel offer any truly fresh insights.
Testament of Youth is in on general release from Friday January 16th.