Testament of Youth review: Cinematic flair in love and war

Testament of Youth
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Director: 1979 TV mini-series
Cert: 12A
Genre: History
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington
Running Time: 2 hrs 9 mins

Television director James Kent makes a hugely successful feature debut with this gorgeous – perhaps a little too gorgeous – adaptation of Vera Brittain’s vital memoir of the first World War.

It's all here. Women really do kiss men through the moving windows of train carriages. Folk genuinely believe it will be over by Christmas. Poetry is exchanged. We should not be surprised. Brittain's book (recycled in, among other places, the Great War season of Upstairs Downstairs) told sad truths that later calcified into easy clichés.

The Swedish actor Alicia Vikander, equal parts Emily Blunt and Felicity Jones, manages a near-perfect English accent as the arrogant, forceful daughter of a Derbyshire industrialist.

As the Balkans simmer, Vera secures a place in Somerville College, Oxford, and falls in love with budding writer Roland Leighton (Kit Harington from Game of Thrones). Both he and her brother head off to the front while Vera attempts to assert herself at university. Eventually she caves in to duty and signs up as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse.


Sometimes those clichés do cause a grinding of narrative gears. We didn’t really need the newspaper headline bellowing: “Archduke shot. Europe in turmoil”. Rob Hardy’s sumptuous, romantic cinematography, though perfect for Buxton and Oxford, softens and aestheticises the battlefield sequences to an uncomfortable degree.

Nonetheless, this remains British “heritage” film-making at its finest. Cast in depth, edited with grace, the picture does great justice to a text that has, of late, become a little under-discussed. The inevitable bereavements are handled with some subtlety and the emptiness of the post-war years are sensitively summoned up.

Most impressively, Vikander and the writers refuse to make a saint of Vera Brittain. She is brave, but she is also rude, ungrateful and impulsive. The admirable UK politician Shirley Williams, Brittain’s daughter, has, nonetheless, given the production her blessing. We’d expected nothing else.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist