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Testament of Youth - DVD Review

Testament of Youth

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

IF the suffering of those who sacrificed their lives on the battlefields of World War I has been well documented on film, then the torment of those they left behind has perhaps been a little overlooked. James Kent’s Testament of Youth, based on the real-life memoirs of Vera Brittain, goes some way to redressing that balance.

Picking up on the eve of war, the film follows the irrepressible, intelligent and free-minded Brittain (played superbly by Alicia Vikander) as she overcomes the prejudices of her family and society to win a scholarship to Oxford with her brother and his close friend Roland Leighton (Kit Harington).

But no sooner has she celebrated such a personal achievement, and taken the first tentative steps towards romance with Roland, then she finds the men in her life signing up for king and country to take on Germany in the First World War. Tragedy predictably follows.

Kent’s film may be an increasingly sombre affair but it’s also both haunting and powerful in the way that it puts forward the female experience of war without forgetting the effect it has on the men fighting it – or even those men, such as her father (Dominic West), who had to wave their sons off to such an uncertain future.

Indeed, it’s a highly thoughtful and thought-provoking piece of work that, admittedly, tugs at the heart-strings – but deservedly so. In doing so, it relays the wastefulness of war without spending much time on the battlefield, while also highlighting the bravery of everyone concerned (family members as well as soldiers).

It’s also handsomely shot by Kent, so that scenes of natural beauty and romance are offset by some of the harder hitting elements of life in the Trenches or in the hospitals nearby.

And in terms of performance, there’s so much to admire. Vikander, especially, offers something of a tour-de-force as Brittain, combining an early free-spirit and fiery determination with an increasing sadness born from worry and bitter experience. And yet she remains quietly dignified and utterly empowering as she completes her journey.

Harington, too, is on good form as Leighton, especially as he grapples with the realities of life on the battlefield and its constant proximity to death. While there’s excellent support from West as Brittain’s father (one scene, in particular, stands out as he says a tearful farewell to his son), as well as Emily Watson, as her mother, Colin Morgan and Taron Egerton, as, respectively, another potential suitor and brother, and Hayley Atwell, as a nurse.

Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be bestowed upon Testament of Youth, however, is that it does justice to the inspirational piece of writing that inspired it (namely Brittain’s actual memoir), while serving as a potent and still highly relevant reminder of the emotional devastation of war for younger and older audiences alike.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 130mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: May 25, 2015