Testament of Youth Early Review – The Great Bore

testament-of-youth

Given that 2014 in the UK has featured so many tributes to those we lost in the First World War, from special exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum to the display of poppies outside the Tower of London, it’s only fitting that we also get a film commemorating the Lost Generation. What a crying shame, then, that Testament of Youth is so dull, dim-witted, and badly performed. It plays like a bad episode of British television, as if it were a Downton Abbey spinoff or something of that ilk. Wasting a solid supporting cast and focusing on all the wrong moments from its subject’s life, Testament of Youth is a late but strong contender for my worst movie of the year. 

Based on the eponymous memoir of Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander), Testament of Youth tells the tale of a young woman whose life is irrevocably altered by the Great War, which steals the lives of the three young men who were most important to her. Her fiancé, Roland Leighton (Kit Harington), signs up before anyone else, coming home on leave to reveal only a shell of the man he was. Later on, Brittain loses her best friend Victor (Merlin’s Colin Morgan, the only actor who appears to be putting in any effort) and brother (Taron Egerton). In a stronger film, these three losses would be absolutely devastating, but their emotional impact is lost behind a haze of bad acting (Alicia Vikander, of Swedish origin, is clearly not comfortable enough with English to carry this role) and boredom.

Testament of Youth is, and this is its worst crime, a very boring film. The pace is glacial, and yet nothing interesting is explored in all the time it gives itself. Conversations are punctuated by lengthy and awkward silences, possibly meant to convey the emotional distance between the soldiers and the home front but actually coming across as if everyone has just forgotten their lines. The first 40 minutes, all long walks in fields and Edwardian teenage angst, could have and should have been done in 10. You assume things will pick up once Vera goes to Oxford and her men go to war, but nothing notable seems to actually happen. Even her time as a frontline nurse barely raises the film’s pulse, although at points I wasn’t sure if this was down to the script or the performances.

Brittain’s intelligence and revolutionary individualism is portrayed here as nothing more than emotional ignorance. Instead of being sharp or forward-thinking, Brittain comes across as rude and inconsiderate, making it hard to sympathise with her plight. In doing this, Juliette Towhidi’s script not only fails to create a lively film, but also enfeebles a feminist icon. Everyone else, bar Colin Morgan’s Victor, is essentially a caricature. Roland the dashing intellectual, Hayley Atwell as the war-toughened nurse and Dominic West and Emily Watson dreadfully wasted as generically conservative parents. No one here feels actually human, and in a film covering a topic as emotionally resonant as World War 1, that is utterly unforgivable.

The true story of Vera Brittain is fascinating, a rare insight into the minds of those left behind during the war and how they changed the world once it ended. By focusing mainly on Brittain’s life before the war, and with editing, writing, and acting as weak as they are, Testament of Youth fundamentally fails at adapting this life to the big screen.

1/5

Directed by James Kent

Written by Juliette Towhidi

Starring; Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Colin Morgan

Run Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: 12

Testament of Youth is due for a UK release on 16th January 2015

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2 comments

  1. Excuse me? You want this film to be nice and racy, to get your heart beating hard? If it’s not actually cracking in two then you are disturbingly emotionally constipated. This is a true story. It’s not meant to excite you, it’s meant to haunt you, and I find that that is exactly what it’s done for me. Alicia Vikander never stuck me as someone trying to remember her lines or be struggling with language at all, nor did any actor. I’m pretty sure it would be difficult to take seriously if people were talking all the time and not so obviously contemplating the absolute misery and horror constantly surrounding them in a world they no longer recognise.

    What stuck me most was Vikander’s increadible portrayal of a complete and utter emotional breakdown. When her fiancé dies, everything stops and there is nothing but that devastating moment when she realises everything she’s lost, on her wedding day. I would not expect her to get up and have a chat about how sad it is.

    Kit Harrington as Roland was amazing, and highly touching. I remember the tears starting when he returned from the war a changed man; haunted, afraid and all-around different from the sensitive soul we met at the beginning. And that pain was not lost by any poor acting, you could see it plain as day.

    Following his death, I’ll agree with you that Colin Morgan put in effort. He didn’t just do that though, he seemed to put his heart and soul into his performance. His obvious love for Vera at the beginning, to his lie about Molly, and especially that broken expression on his face when he tuned down Vera. That was probably my one of favourite moments in the whole film, him giving that up, knowing that it wasn’t quite right. Not just ‘effort’. Far, far more than that. Upon his death, Vikander again represented exactly how I felt, and how the audience was feeling, beautifully and with great skill.
    Taron Egerton was also magnificent in his role. He truly showed how he went from boyhood to a man – robbed of his youth. Misery at his oppressed love of music. And when he dies, I was emotionally exhausted. I felt Vikander played that out wonderfully.

    And for goodness’ sake, the parents were not ‘generic’. When Vera was called back from war, her mother was tired. Drained. The war wrecked her. Can you not figure that out? The wailing of the father when he discovers his son is dead was absolutely heartbreaking. There is nothing worse than a family torn apart, and you could see that that messenger delivered telegrams all the time. Similarly to us, the audience, far away in time, we can’t understand the pain through figures in history. This account is trying to help us understand how it affected one person, let alone an entire generation.

    The filming is also just as thoughtful. I was lucky enough to go to the early screening and see an interview discussing techniques. They spoke of making everything far more rushed, more dark and more confined over time as the war became worse. That sense of claustrophobia, which for some reason you were immune to, certainly made me a lot less comfortable than the open fields and meadows at the beginning.

    The most emotional part of filming for me was the far shots. The places they were once all together. The road they walked every day, the place Vera and Victor spoke, all now empty, lonely and desolate. There was no more youth, and Vera’s friends were now gone.

    Nearing the end, Alicia collapses. Tired. Unable to cope. In the audience, I felt like slowly slipping onto the floor and curling up to waste away with Vera. At the very end, again where they had once been happy together, she returns to lake and swims. An act of recovery and resilience after such a horrific time. I was wailing at this point. I do not understand how you could have sat there thinking ”ugh, boring…”, either you don’t understand the depth and the importance of what this film has told you, not just about the war but also Vera and human endurance, or you’re just a robot. Because if you did understand that and still felt nothing, then I worry for you.

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