Testament of Youth

Premiered at the London Film Festival in October, 2014, Testament of Youth finally arrived to our city here in Western Canada in late August, and only for a week or so. It came quietly to our age-old indie theatre, nearly slipped by without my noticing it; if so, that would have been a loss for me.

I admit I haven’t read Vera Brittain’s acclaimed, 600 plus page memoir. I admit too that before watching Downton Abbey Seasons 1 and 2, the subject of WWI, its direct hits and collateral damages, had not piqued my interest that much. Now, even saying ‘piqued my interest’ trivializes the devastation – as this film has so poignantly shown us – the tragic loss of a generation of youth.

The beginning of the film, which is elegantly shot, shows us succinctly Vera Brittain’s (Alicia Vikander) well-to-do family. Vera and her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) are endearingly close. While their intention is good, their parents (Dominic West, Emily Watson) are protective and traditional: Edward has the chance to go to Oxford, Vera is meant for marriage. On this issue, Vera protests and argues with her father; eventually, her determination and intellectual vigour win through. A dream comes true when Vera enters the women’s Somerville College Oxford to study English Literature.

Testament of Youth Poster (1)

From her brother, Vera gets to know a few good Oxford men: Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan), Geoffrey Thurlow (Jonathan Bailey), and Roland Leighton (Kit Harington). Roland subsequently wins her heart with his sensitive, poetic inclination; the two soon are engaged. The winds of war blow callous and indiscriminate. As Britain is drawn into the fight, all these young men heed the call to enlist. Vera too decides to forsake her hard-earned Oxford education to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment as a nurse.

The saddest and most ironic notion about WWI is perhaps that it was first thought to be a fast and triumphal war. Surely, Britain came out a victor, but not before ringing up a horrific number of casualties and sending back home – for those fortunate enough – a permanently damaged generation. As the military struggle wained through four long years, Vera would ultimately lose all who are dearest to her: her brother Edward, her fiancé Roland, and their two close friends Victor and Geoffrey. After the war, Vera goes back to Oxford. Later, a disillusioned Vera becomes a vocal pacifist and an advocate of women’s rights.

This is British director James Kent’s full feature debut after years of helming TV productions. His effort is conscientious and serious, and for that, I’d much appreciated.  The film is beautifully shot and carefully crafted. The camera work, while giving us a traditional look, is agile and stylish; the editing succinct. I have not read the memoir so cannot offer comparison, but judging the film on its own, the screenplay is well written and the overall production, a captivating execution.

Kent has an excellent cast to work with, and that adds to the quality of the production. Vera Brittain is well portrayed by the nowadays ubiquitous, Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. She is in some very diverse roles, from Kitty in Anna Karenina (2012) to an AI robot in Ex Mechina (2015), to the witty British agent Gaby in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), and in several highly anticipated upcoming films.

Vikander is versatile, and her best quality is probably the intelligent and unsentimental mastery of her character. Here, she is a living testament to the devastation of war. For a witness to testify effectively, the most important element has to be clarity and not be overcome by emotions. She has delivered her message poignantly.

Other actors are just as competent in their roles, and a pleasure to watch, despite all their tragic end. Aaron Egerton as Edward, what a change from the street punk under Colin Firth’s mentoring in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Kit Harington’s (Game of Throne fame) performance is effective, particularly in a scene where he comes home the first time from the trenches, a changed man. Veteran actors Dominic West and Emily Watson are excellent supports, especially West as the father torn by grief and ambivalence.

I have seen several WWI and II films in recent years: Sarah’s Key, The Book Thief, The Monuments Men, Suite Française, I have to place Testament of Youth above all of them. Visceral but not sentimental, the film communicates with painful clarity the devastation of war, the traumatic experiences in the trenches, and the cold, hard fact of a testimonial: the loss of a generation.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


Other related Ripple Reviews:

Suite Française

The Book Thief

Sarah’s Key

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Ex Machina

Anna Karenina 



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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

16 thoughts on “Testament of Youth”

  1. A lovely review Arti – it didn’t last long in theaters and moviegoers missed a great tribute to Brittain and her entire generation. I finally, after years of it sitting on my TBR pile, read Brittain’s memoir 2 months ago, having no idea that it was to be made into a movie. I don’t know when I have read a book that affected me as this one did – it haunts me still. You must read it Arti – it is her heartfelt “testament” to the entire generation of young men (and women) who gave up all for God, King, and Country. Brittain became a life-long pacifist after her experiences made it more than clear to her that War had no winners, only losers, and that humanity must find a better way to deal with conflict than digging trenches and killing off all the 18 year olds on all sides.

    The movie is beautifully done – the casting and acting perfect – Vikander is brilliant as Vera, and with just a single look can convey what was on the page. They make a few changes, as moviemakers are wont to do, and condense various events, but I have no doubt Brittain would have been pleased to see her story so lovingly told.

    Do read the book though Arti – even though you know the outcome, this is a perfect example of the journey being worth every minute you invest – my husband is now reading it and it quite taken with her story and her writing…

    Thank you for giving this movie and Brittain’s story much deserved praise! (Not sure if you knew that the BBC made a mini-series of it in the 1980s – I have not seen it and it is impossible to get, but friends who have say it was a perfect telling…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Deb,

      Thanks so much for your heartfelt comment. Glad you found the movie adaptation well done as a viewer who had read the book. Screenwriter Juliette Towhidi had done an excellent job then of condensing a 600+ page memoir into a 129 mins. feature film. Brittain’s life is definitely significant, and I’d read too that her memoir had become an exemplar for other memoir writers to look up to.

      Yes, the cast sure is the most important asset a director has to craft his work. It’s all perfectly cast, isn’t it? I believe Alicia Vikander’s career has just taken off and her future is bright indeed. As for the book, it’s now on my TBR list. Again, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with such eloquent words! 😉

      Liked by 2 people

    1. You know, I haven’t watched GOT or that horrible Pompeii movie before, so this is my fresh, first impression of Kit Harrington. I think he did a fine job, same with the other young men.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. First, a tangential note. When I downloaded the preview of Brittain’s book to my Kindle, I noticed that they offered a opinion on estimated reading time for the complete book (twelve hours). Now I know where WordPress got the idea in their last Reader update to offer an estimated reading time. There was some huffing and puffing, and they changed it to word count. Better, I think.

    The preview of the book was fascinating. I haven’t finished it, but it includes an introduction and the preface. Perhaps there’s a sample of the writing, too. In any event, it’s quite interesting to me that WWI finally is getting more attention. Like the Pacific theatre in WWII, it’s been fading away. There are realities there that must be faced, and lessons to be learned.

    Your review is so good. I may end up making this my first try at a “big book” on the Kindle. It would be a good test of the thing, that’s for sure!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. From what I’ve read about TOY the book and the comment from Deb above, I think you have made an excellent choice for an epic read on your Kindle. Well geared up for the upcoming Suffragette movie too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I want to add my praise for Brittain’s “Testament of Youth.” I read it years ago. You may (or may not) have seen the splendid BBC series in 1979 with Cheryl Campbell as Brittain. Time may have cemented the program into my memory with lapses that allow it to seem perhaps greater than it would be today — but maybe not. The BBC shows hold up well and that one did justice to the story.

    I’m pleased that this is being given wider release closer to award time. I was concerned when I saw the NYT review in June or July or maybe even before — but no sign of it here. Now I see it will be at our theatres in October. Or at least the chain, which also has theatres in other cities so I’m only hoping that I’m interpreting it correctly. Meanwhile, I’m wondering if I still have the book. If I do, I may well revisit it again. It’s worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Jeanie,

        Wonderful! It’s Film Festival Season, so maybe theatres are beginning to warm up and show last year’s features! Anyway, glad they’ve finally arrived. Now, I must turn to this year’s Film Festivals, albeit I’ll be missing them due to my road trip. I still have to keep informed. So, stay tuned for next post. 😉


    1. Barbara,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, Testament of Youth is a worthy production that ought to be in more theatres and much longer time. Glad you find my reviews helpful in your movie selections. 😉


  4. I saw this last night and your review captures it perfectly. I was impressed and humbled. Gorgeous performances, a compelling look at the damage of war. The filming/editing was terrific. I’m so sad this film isn’t getting the attention I think it deserves.


    1. Jeanie,

      Glad you’ve finally watched it. Isn’t it a moving film production? Hopefully through other platforms it will come again, streaming, DVDs, Blu-rays, etc. Hats off to the youth who ventured out into the trenches, and my respect to the young actors in this production. I think they’ve all done a wonderful job.


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