It’s been 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War, the war to end all wars that sadly didn’t. After a summer of commemorative television programming to mark the date, the BBC has switched to a different format with Testament of Youth, adapted from Vera Brittain’s memoir of the same name. With the air of a Sunday night special, albeit a superior one, it develops from lush period drama to a moving excoriation of war with accomplished grace.
Across a number of locations, the production design and costumes succeed in putting the lush into this period. Vera’s world is one of flowery wallpaper, wood panelling, porcelain vases and grand pianos. Played with earnest intensity by Alicia Vikander, she locks herself away from the finery to study for the Oxford entrance exam. Following her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), fiancé Roland (Kit Harington) and close friend Victor (Colin Morgan) to university is her dream. It’s a world that in many ways has changed little. Until the war comes.
The noticeable difference is Vera herself. She’s adamantly determined not to be held back by her gender; deeply resentful of the societal role she’s bred for. Her parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson) love her but don’t understand the desire to go to Oxford and the distaste for the conventions of married life that Juliette Towhidi’s screenplay shows bubbling in Vera. Glimmers start to appear though. There’s Roland’s encouragement of her writing and the discovery that his mother is the primary breadwinner in the family. Just be careful not to mistake James Kent’s debut feature for more than a respectful period drama. Shot in soft light, there’s a comforting fuzziness in all his backdrops. It’s an attractively placid world. And then the war comes.
Suddenly everyone is rushing to sign up, motivated by a mixture of excitement and shame. No one wants to miss out on the adventure and no one wants to be seen missing out. It’s a heady jape for all too many of those signing up and signing away their lives. Even Vera is swept away, helping to convince her father that Edward should be allowed to go. Waving to loved ones at the station, no one really knows what’s coming. And with an increasingly ominous mood hanging over the film, it’s clear this train is only the first of many shipping away a lost generation.
There’s a shortage of energy in Testament of Youth, the story moving gracefully and gradually into wartime. The faces all fit admirably but obvious foreshadowing – Vera’s lingering focus on disabled men – and heightened emotional reactions reveal the artifice. Despite this, when the film wants tears it knows how to draw them out through rising music and deceptive lulls before each bombshell drops. Kent is also able to bring home the scale of the conflict. One shot near the end, when Vera is working as a nurse in France close to the front line, soars over medical huts to take in an army of casualties spread out in regimental lines.
Scenes could be trimmed and grit added, but Kent’s film is a handsome and affecting piece that stays true to Vera’s pacifist legacy. She even gets to close by dramatically denouncing conflict. Sadly, the limitless dead proved not to be the lost generation, just another generation lost to the indiscriminate carnage war brings. Vera Brittain dedicated her life to preventing war. Testament of Youth succeeds in showing that even if we aren’t there yet, and maybe never will be, we shouldn’t stop trying.