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Movie Review: Testament of Youth

Ros Hull

A young woman, desperate to be allowed to attend Oxford, has to confront the reality of war as the four young men in her life all go to the Western Front. She puts her studies on hold and volunteers as a nurse.

Vera Brittain was arguably one of the best-known British pacifists and writers of the 20th century. Her biographical novel, Testament of Youth, was published in 1933 – in time to warn another generation of the emotional desolation of a world at war.

This film, released in time for the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I is quietly devastating in the picture it paints of life just before, during and immediately after that war.

Speaking of which, it may be unfashionable to say this but I am feeling a bit jaded about the whole Gallipoli ‘thing’. Firstly because even though it was a milestone in our history, there is much, much more to the stories, the courage and the losses of that war that just one peninsula. In one week on the Western Front we lost more soldiers that we did in one month on Gallipoli.

And secondly because it seems Gallipoli/World War I is a bandwagon everyone can jump up on. Whether it is to hawk memorabilia, biscuits, jumpers, football or seemingly endless TV shows and movies we are in danger of creating many more ‘Cut-me-own-throat Dibblers’ than Terry Pratchett did. So I didn’t bother to see this film when it was released as part of the British Film Festival last year – even though it stars Jon Snow (Kit Harrington). I should have seen it then and I am pleased I have seen it now.

It is achingly beautiful, even in the sea of mud on the battlefield, and it is haunted. Haunted by the ghosts of the four young men who are the core of the story. Brittain is a participant but the bulk of her role is as observer and recorder of these lives full of promise ruthlessly and arbitrarily cut short.

I am sure she must have had at least some female friends but the book, and this film, concentrate on the camaraderie and love she had for the young men closest to her. Although, given that she was determined to gain a degree against her father’s wishes, and that her very closest friend was her brother, perhaps she didn’t think much of female company.

Regardless, the men are coloured in with love whilst Vera herself remains a little unknown. It is a huge ask of any young actress to be the central focus of so many scenes but to not do anything, just think and feel. Alicia Vikander is very good but some of the many cole-ups of her drawing breath and jerking her neck, every so slightly, to signify pent up emotion, could have been cut.

Still, I am nitpicking. The whole cast is very good in their roles but the young men shine. Kit Harrington is her first love and Colin Morgan (TV’s Merlin) is the friend with a crush on her. Taron Egerton (Kingsmen) is her brother Edward (who won a Military Cross) and Jonathon Bailey (Broadchurch) is his very close friend. They are handsome, they are joyful and they are recognisable faces to young viewers. Which is reasonably brilliant because it reminds the audience that war is not medals and marches and ever older and older men, it is a devourer of young people’s lives and in 1914-18 it took thousands and thousands of young men’s lives.

All we can do is recognise their sacrifice by remembering them. Not the battles, the men.

And that is the point of the film, made incredibly powerfully by the very last frames. Take tissues with you.

Roslyn saw this film as a guest of Dendy Cinemas.

Ros Hull

Ros saw Star Wars and immediately wanted to fly the Millenium Falcon. Unable to do that she became a Jill-of-all-trades as her army husband whirled her around the world – and back to Canberra 10 years ago. She has worked in public programs and museum education ever since. She gained an MA in writing whilst getting two daughters through high school - both are now at university and undeniably fabulous (according to her). She can worry as an Olympic sport so she sees lots of movies instead. More about the Author

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