Early on in Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) describes a certain passage of poetry as dry and lacking in feeling. There’s always something appealing about a movie that can accurately review itself.
Based on Brittain’s memoir of her time and experiences during World War One, Testament of Youth is a chronicle of love, duty, family in all its forms and, mostly, loss. As Vera moves from passion projects to assuming roles out of honour during a time wherein Women were yet to reap the full benefits of free and equal society, her life is the looking glass through which the audience can allegedly survey the repercussions of war.
It’s an inherent problem when an adaptation of a memoir struggles most depicting an author and here Brittain is a clumsy mess of archetypes. Starting out as a petulant teenager and gradually developing into a resentful revolutionary, there are a number of problematic factors, all topped off by Vikander’s mismanaged performance. Her portrayal seems utterly dictated by the constructs of whatever scene is in question with no discernible flow of emotion or, conversely, any explosive or dynamic show of expression. She simply is what she must be for the story to progress rather than proving such progression and as long as Vikander fails to sell her character there is no reason for us to believe in her. This is never more apparent than when she shares the screen with love interest Roland, brought vividly to life by a surprisingly charming Kit Harrington. Having been consistently the least exciting cast member on Game of Thrones for nearly half a decade, it’s surprising to see Harrington deliver the standout performance of Youth and even then he’s followed closely by Dominic West as the patriarchal figure to Vikander’s rebellious Brittain, showing after last year’s Pride that he is one of the best supporting players in British cinema today.
Other concerns abound throughout Testament of Youth, primarily a general lack of theatricality. Youth feels like a character drama shot for TV but presented on a big screen and all though the sets, costumes and aesthetics are all up to snuff, the framing and camerawork all feel patently under ambitious. The film struggles heavily with some exceptionally abrupt and overly zealous editing that simply refuses to trust the actors to hold the screen and, ironically, by restricting visible human passion negates the power of multiple scenes making it very easy to feel bored and passé about more or less the entire picture.
Although Testament of Youth attempts to convey a sensuality inherent to poetry, it’s almost exclusively unable to evoke any distinct reaction throughout. Scenes of bloody injury never do an especially good job of selling the horror of war and news of loss fails to permeate as the distinction between tragic characters is only broadly established and even so Testament feels far too long. As the credits rolled it was highlighted that Brittain’s memoir has stood as the voice of a generation. That may be the case but Testament of Youth as it was adapted for the screen would be lucky to be the voice of its own post viewing discussion.
Bland, boring and providing nothing new (except for a terrific Kit Harrington), Testament of Youth seems to exist only for those who can’t survive a month without a period drama and they could still probably skip it.
Testament of Youth is out in cinemas everywhere now.