Movie Review: 'Testament of Youth' (2015)

In "My Back Pages," Bob Dylan eloquently reflects on the humbling experience of looking back on his younger years through a lived-in life's perspective. The lesson of youth's unstoppable confidence learning the immeasurable wisdom of age's caution is an invaluable insight “Testament of Youth” readily shares in common with Dylan's song.

Director James Kent’s adaptation of Vera Brittain’s landmark memoir of the same name rivetingly portrays the events she chronicled. The ones that would come to shake and shape her life. In the spring of 1914, a feisty Vera (Alicia Vikander) has one thing on her mind – studying at Oxford with the hopes of becoming a professional writer.

It is a goal, she feels alone in having for her future. Hence, she is flustered with the world around her and determined to prove herself. As it turns out, she is not as solitary in her vision for herself as she originally thinks. And thanks to her brother Edward’s (Taron Egerton) intervention, her parents are eventually convinced to give their seal of approval to her academic aspirations.

Around this time there is another development in Vera's life. When, despite her ardent vow to never fall in love or marry, she finds herself swept up in an unexpected romance with her brother’s friend, Roland (Kit Harington). He supports her dreams and their shared passion for writing creates an abiding bond.

Just when their lives are coming together, the world around them tears it apart. World War I is declared and Roland enlists in the effort. Vera’s brother and two mutual friends soon follow. Not one to sit on the sidelines, she finds a way to contribute, putting aside her scholastic dreams to volunteer as a nurse.

From here the movie plunges into turmoil; its earlier scenes' sense of hope and idyllic beauty, shattered by the ugly reality of war. Miraculously, Kent finds a way to depict all of this without weighing the viewer down to utterly depressing lows. And that is no easy task because this is a beyond tragic tale, only made more so by the inescapable reality that it truly transpired.

[Image by Lionsgate/BBC Films/Heyday Films]
“Testament of Youth” keeps the story flowing and its central players growing, for it is as much a coming-of-age drama as it is one about war. For all of youth’s idealism comes the reality check of age's experience. While Vera’s initial focus centers on the constraints her gender faces in society, she is also confronted with the ones facing men.

The societal pressure for them to risk their lives in a war, they are highly likely not to return from alive. And should they survive, not as their original selves. It is a truth she comes to learn all too well. These young men's astounding courage is given incredible due here, as is the harrowing contribution of the women who nursed them behind-the-lines.

As much as death surrounds its story, Kent finds a way to spend more time focused on how these men would live on. The notion that one’s own memories create a certain level of immortality for a loved one is an ever-present theme, as is the significance of writing.

Had Vera Brittain not penned her story; those she loved and lost would have been faceless casualties the public would have never known. By commemorating them through the pen, she gave them an everlasting legacy – one that has since surpassed her own life.

The love story at the center of it all is one of the more powerful to be portrayed on-screen. The love between Vera and Roland runs deep, proving itself as a force far stronger than a first love infatuation. During its run time, the movie expertly cements this. Theirs is a love born out of mutual respect for each other’s minds and passions, an eternal connection.

In the same year that saw the release of Thomas Vinterberg's “Far from the Madding Crowd,” “Testament of Youth” tells a similar story - that of a strong woman dealing with life-altering romance and a desire to make her own way in the world. Both also acknowledge the pivotal men in their lives, whose own progressive attitudes aid the women they love in pursuing their ambitions.

[Image by Lionsgate/BBC Films/Heyday Films]
Alicia Vikander’s performance is every bit as commanding as the one she gives in her Oscar-winning turn in “The Danish Girl”. She carries “Testament of Youth” on her shoulders with a grace and fortitude that is nothing short of tremendous.

Her refined portrayal of the big emotional scenes that punctuate the film is simply masterful. She transmits Vera’s virtue and tenderness, quiet rage, and heartache, harshness, and honesty with an unparalleled and admirable proficiency.

As stellar as Vikander is, the supporting cast also rises to the occasion. As Roland, Kit Harington impressively channels the varying emotional intervals of a man, who is equal parts an aspiring poet caught in the throes of romance and a soldier honor-bound to his duty.

It is a haunting performance that is furthered in its depth by Harington's striking portrayal of Roland's initial lightness of being and the ensuing darkness that threatens to consume him.

Together, Harington and Vikander forge a chemistry that leaves an indelible impression - a refreshing blend of real life’s innocent awkwardness and "reel" life’s grand romanticism.

Taron Egerton and Colin Morgan, superbly round out the trio of young men that centrally populate Vera’s life. As a group, Vikander, Egerton, Harington, and Morgan; crucially convey the unique dynamic between a sister, her brother and his friends.

As all sincerely capture the carefree playfulness that encompasses such a bond. While in a knockout scene, Dominic West gives a powerhouse performance as the Brittains’ sorrow-filled patriarch.

In the vein of its central characters, Kent crafts every scene with a poetic eloquence. Whether it is with Vera's fevered daydreams, the ravishing view of a mournful train station or the maddening sight of a blood-soaked field of wounded soldiers; he drives the point home. “War is hell.”

One of 2015's best films, “Testament of Youth” serves as a stunning testament to many things. Love’s enduring influence, the horrors of war, the searing agony of grief, and the well-meaning misjudgment of youth. Few movies have something new to say about life and yet, “Testament of Youth” has a lot to say that is rarely spoken – the truth. Rating: 9.5/10

[Featured Image by Lionsgate/BBC Films/Heyday Films]