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Testament of Youth: based on the memoir of Vera Brittain is a title you will unlikely recall with ease, yet is telling of the reverence the film has towards its source material.
Documentary filmmaker James Kent’s debut feature opens on the luminous, yet troubled face of a young Vera (Alicia Vikander) on Armistice Day. She flees the celebratory crowds for the refuge of a church where she stands before Francis Danby’s apocalyptic painting The Deluge. The waters engulfing the battered bodies draw her into a flashback to four years earlier where the story begins proper. The bodies here are frolicking in country fields, awash in warming lens flare and poetic first love. Such idylls are, of course, dramatically underscored by the knowledge of what we know to have occurred in the intervening years. While this adaptation is rendered in a classically crafted manner, it sensitively follows Brittain’s sombre story from that time when her most pressing concern was gaining entry into Oxford, to abandoning her quest for independence to become a volunteer nurse in France, and finally returning to her studies at home as a stronger, albeit harrowed woman. Shaping the pacifist views for which she became known is the impact of losing her fiancé, Roland Leighton (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington), her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and would–be suitor and friend, Victor (impressive Colin Morgan) to the war they so eagerly enlisted for. There is grief aplenty, lots of rain and more than a few nods to other great cinematic romances (Brief Encounter and Gone With the Wind), yet Kent restrains the drama from teary sentimentalism to give us a powerful coming–of–age tale foregrounded against the horror and futility of war. As the resolute Brittain, Swedish actress Vikander is a standout, as much for her technical abilities in commanding the accent, as for her emotional fluency in this pertinent film.