Released in 1933, Testament Of Youth is the memoir of Vera Brittain, a writer and pacifist who detailed her experiences during the Great War. Brought to the big screen by Harry Potter and Paddington producers David Heyman and Rosie Alison, it tells of how Brittain self-tutored herself to gain a place studying literature in Oxford, only to temporarily give up her education to work as a nurse for the wounded both abroad and at home, when World War I breaks out and her fiancée and brother go to France to fight.
An unremarkable adaptation of a remarkable story, this particular adaptation of Brittain’s memoir isn’t completely successful in the telling of it. The promise of a focus on Brittain and her strong willed, feministic ideals, quickly evaporates in place of clichéd romanticism and contradiction. In the opening sequences of the film, Vera is angered by her father when he buys her a piano, convinced that her future lies more in playing house wife than in academia. An argument quickly breaks out and Vera announces that she never wants to get married, moments before her brother’s friend and future fiancée, Roland Leighton, arrives on the scene. Despite her outburst, it only seems to take hours before Vera is completely besotted with Roland and that left me with an overwhelming sense of disappointment for it seems that even Vera Brittain can fall victim to cinemas depiction of a feminist, where a woman can be independent and tenacious but ultimately must fall in love with a man.
Now, I know that this is what happened; Vera did indeed fall in love and it could have happened as easily as it’s depicted in the film, but the romance is really pushed as far as it can go. Flashes of flesh and embraces are only the beginning of it; there’s passionate farewell kisses at train platforms and on British cliff sides which would all be well and good if this were a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, but does detract from some of the more interesting plot threads running throughout the film. This isn’t romantic cynicism and considering I recently took my girlfriend to New York and proposed in Central Park on Christmas Day, I like to think of myself as a bit of a romantic. But even with this in mind, this particular element of Testament Of Youth was still a bit too sickly sweet for my tastes.
It’s important however to be clear that I didn’t like this particular aspect because I’m a boy and this is simply a girls film, because that just isn’t the case at all. Men may very well like it and women are just as equally likely to hate the ‘mushy’ stuff. It’s just that in this particular instance, I became increasingly frustrated the less time was spent on an interesting point in Brittain’s life, over more time spent on her romantic life. Aside from the love story, the film does have a number of other problems as well. Budgetary constraints are glaringly obvious in the way the war is portrayed in that it’s hardly portrayed at all. Director James Kent creatively does the best he can with what he’s been given and so keeps scenes on the frontline contained to haunting images of the soldiers faces. At the same time however, it means that the film doesn’t have the same kind of impact that I was hoping for.
Where the film does work is in its cinematography, shot in beautiful locations across the country that range from vast, muddied green countryside to the cliff sides and beaches of Britain. It is all in fact a rather British affair, boasting a familiar cast of thesp’s from film and television alike. Despite the beautiful imagery and a great central performance from Alicia Vikander, Testament Of Youth does fall into the same trap as other biopics; choosing to focus on one particular element over the other, in this instance romance. It’s far from a disaster but is decidedly middle of the road and lacks any kind of long lasting impact.
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