Just been watching…(63)

Testament of Youth (2014)

***This is a true story, set around historical events. So spoilers apply***

Fortunately, the BBC is not letting us forget that we are still remembering The Great War of 1914-1918. One hundred years ago, men were dying all over Europe, in what later became known as WW1. This film was shown at the weekend, and is based on the book of the same name, by British writer Vera Brittain. I have read the book, and also watched the outstanding TV serialisation in 1979. This modern film stays true to both.

Very much a film of two halves, we start off with the rather idyllic lifestyle enjoyed by the English upper classes in the first decade of the 20th century. Polite company, girls looking for husbands, young men looking for suitable wives. Tea on the lawn, swimming in the lake, and walks on the beach. The men are at expensive private schools, and all have solid futures at university, and beyond. Young Vera is a rebel. She wants to go to Oxford University. Few women gained such places back then, and her father fears that it will make her unattractive to any prospective husband. But she is strong and determined, and gains her place at an all-girl college. Meanwhile, she spends the last holiday with her brother, and his two best friends. One of them is besotted with her, and they fall in love and become engaged to marry.

But just as she leaves for Oxford, war breaks out in Europe.

Vera’s fiance promises not to go, but soon joins up. Her brother follows shortly after. The third friend is initially turned down for medical reasons, but as casualties mount, he too joins as an officer. Studying at Oxford, Vera feels useless, and wants to do something for the war effort. She abandons her degree, and becomes a volunteer nurse. After working in England for some time, and seeing the effect of war on the patients she is treating, she asks for transfer to France, to help with the wounded close to the front line, and to be nearer her brother, who is leading his men in the trenches now.

This is a film about tragedy, and how we cope with it. Newspapers in the film are little more than page after page listing the names of men killed in action. Vera’s mother is unable to cope with wartime rationing, and the fact that her household staff have left. Her comfortable life has been shattered, and it affects her mentally. Vera’s sombre father has seen his son off to the war, and is constantly worried about him. As the war goes on, the reality hits home. Vera’s fiance is reported killed, on the very day he should be home on leave to marry her. She gets the news while wearing her wedding dress.
Working in a field hospital in France, Vera is shocked to see her own brother brought in, badly wounded, and left for dead. She nurses him back to health, only to have to watch him leave to go back to the war once again. When they get the news that he has been killed in action later, it almost breaks his distraught father.

This is a noble film. It is not a war film, though there are some short action scenes, mostly in flashback. Much of the action takes place in either comfortable upper-class homes, or amid the horrors of battlefield hospitals, short on resources, and understaffed. I think it is a fine adaptation of the book, with the period feel handled flawlessly, and the viewer completely invested in the emotions and strengths of the characters. Above all, it is the casting that exudes quality. Not a single bad choice, with every actor and actress just right for the role. And what talent is on display too.

Swedish actress Alicia Vikander may seem a strange choice to play the rebellious Vera. But she is just perfect, and her accent is exactly right too. This young woman really knows how to act, and I have never seen her give a poor performance. Vera’s parents are played by Dominic West, and the wonderful Emily Watson, and her female tutor at Oxford gives Miranda Richardson the chance to shine once again, this time in a smaller role. The three men in Vera’s life are all just right too. Her brother is played solidly by Taron Egerton, and her fiance by Kit Harington. Their friend Victor, who has always secretly loved Vera, is a fine turn from Colin Morgan, showing real acting quality.

The British film industry has a long history of delivering compelling historical and period dramas. They tend to do these very well indeed, and this is no exception.

47 thoughts on “Just been watching…(63)

  1. I’m playing catch up, having been away for a few days, and I’ve been forced to delete some emails re new posts without reading them. (Otherwise I shall simply drown.) But yours have escaped the distressing cull and this is another post for which I’m grateful. I’ve been wanting to see this film for a long while and hadn’t noticed that it was on so recently. Time to watch it on catch-up tv I think – a break from playing catch-up in my inbox! A great review, Pete!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is the sixth film I have seen her in, including one in a foreign language. I have yet to see her give a bad performance. She was the android woman in ‘Ex Machina’ of course, which got her a lot of attention.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with you, Pete…The effects of the war on the people at home brings the horrors of the conflict to us in harrowing detail, without us needing to see the conflict at close hand….brilliant acting, and true to the book

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a sad story. How Vera found the strength to survive and endure such terrible loss is beyond me. She was a strong and admirable lady.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So many women suffered similar losses, without financial or emotional support. But Vera took up the pacifist cause after 1918, and did much good work trying to advocate peace. Her book also brought attention to that cause, and she left a valuable legacy.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I liked but did not love this. As war films go I think Testament of Youth talks a good game but is still highly sanitised and never truly explores the horrors of war. That said Vikander is excellent and Vera is a complex and relatable heroine. Unfortunately Kit Harington is better suited to roles that require him to have a beard, say very little and wave a sword around, which means she acts him under the table.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is about Vera of course, and as it’s based on her book, it is bound to be less about war, and more about the effects of that war on the wealthy classes. That said, you are correct that it is not really a ‘horrors of war’ film, but I think we get the idea expressed through the emotions of the characters. Vikander is indeed good enough to act almost anyone off a screen, but I thought Joanna Scanlon and Miranda Richardson were both very effective in small roles too.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Like

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