Film Review: Testament Of Youth

The Great War has always sat slightly uneasy with me. I’m almost ashamed to admit to the imagery and emotions that my mind conjures up whenever I think about it. I don’t exactly know why but there seems to be something almost peaceful, enjoyable, longing about it all. There is just something about the time period, about the removal of pace, the simpler life, the lack of modern luxuries that makes that era feel warm and inviting.

I think it’s also a case that when I see, hear or experience the material objects of that time they also don’t seem threatening. There is something non violent about the clothes, the attitudes and the romantics of the time that masks the actual pain, suffering and death that stains its history. It tears at me because there is part of me that would like to live during those years, but also another part that knows the eyes deceive the true horrors of reality.

Vera Brittain - Testament Of Youth

And while school plays, museum displays and visual imagery may warp my thoughts, create an unrealistic impression of life during those years, it is said that Vera Brittain’s account of those years in her book Testament Of Youth is “one of the most power war memoirs ever written” and so I settled in to watch the film adaptation expecting a hard hitting story of life at odds with the ideas I have in my mind.

Instead, I found a film that is safe and equal. It’s almost protective. It transported me back to the time period, to the way of life and tone of living that seems so removed but so welcoming to anything we have today. It looks old fashioned, but sadly, at the same time it felt like a film set. It just didn’t feel natural. None of the actors really look like they were comfortable with their surroundings and it put me at odds with it. It didn’t feel like I was watching imagery from the time but rather, people playing roles in a production. It just never manages to truly shake off that feeling that everything surround Vera Brittain is scripted and preset.

Cast - Testament Of Youth

Everything just seems too artificially aged and too safe. Created rather than lived in. Everything, even the war years seemed overly managed and directed. It’s a bizarre complaint to make or problem to notice, but I kept being drawn to the fact that while Vera was nursing in France, buildings were connected by mud: wet, sticky, glutinous mud, and yet every building she entered, every floor she trod, was clean as a whistle. I just felt like I was being kept at arm’s length from the true realities of every situation. That the story it recounted didn’t match what the eyes had originally seen.

I also had a strange tension towards the cast. Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain is stunning and I formed an emotional bond towards her, but visually I just didn’t think she worked. Aside from a few fleeting moments, where a look, a glimpse would create memories of her role in Ex Machina, my overriding thought was that she didn’t look British. Her accent is scarily impressive but I kept thinking her face looked Swedish, the two somehow not quite marry up properly. The rest of the cast are as equally problematic. Colin Morgan has a minor supporting role and manages to shake off his Merlin pigeon hole even though his character is essentially just the cheeky wizard minus the magic while, Taron Egerton hides in the background even more than Morgan, so much so, that I didn’t realise who exactly he was or that the last time I saw him he was running about as “Eggsy” in Kingsman: The Secret Service. And while Moran and Egerton may not any real issues to the film, Emily Watson and Dominic West as Vera’s parents just don’t work at all. Watson seems starched and stiff while West feels like his been transported from the streets of The Wire and is playing an undercover role. It’s stereotyping upper class Brit through eyes that say “this really isn’t me”.

Taron Egerton & Colin Morgan (Soldiers Parade) - Testament Of Youth

West and Watson drag things down in tone, but my biggest problem though fell onto Kit Harington. He plays the supporting foil Roland, Vera Brittain’s fiancé; and he just doesn’t look mature enough to carry off the maturity he claims to project. Also, he is completely over shadowed by Vikander’s performance (as everyone is) and it means that the seriousness of the film’s story just becomes detached. It’s a stupid thing to say, but you watch these young adults, telling you of the horrors of war and death and suffering. And it feels fake. Not because they don’t believe it, but because I couldn’t image this story happening to people that young. You can’t accept that a child would be in this situation. That they’d think like they do, act like they do so happily and without thought. But that’s my problem, because it is true, and however much it looks wrong, it is what happened. But it meant I never relaxed, never really accepted the characters or their actions and only fleetingly felt anything other than a cold sterile rejection towards the film as a whole.

Having said all of that, there is, what is essentially just a passing chapter in the story, where the film really hits home. It’s driven solely by Vikander, but it got my skin, it drew me in, it made me feel. It forced me to understand her motives, feel her pain and drowning anxiety, and for those few minutes, had me there alongside her, hurting when she did, desperate not to see her suffer any more. It’s such a powerful few moments that it clouds everything else, it is the lasting memory, but it also shows just how self protective and weak the rest of the film is. I want more of it, I want to feel it’s heart beat louder, because it’s shown, in those few fleeting moments that it is a seriously good film, that is worth watching and lingers in your mind but it holds too much back, for too long to make it a great film.

8 out of 10 stars (8 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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