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.