The British costume drama has certain tropes it likes to stick to by and large. The most overpowering assumptions these films like to make is that the Britain of old was a time of stiff upper lips and concealed emotion, with the odd bit of casual sexism thrown in for historical accuracy. Testament of Youth attempts to manoeuvre within these confines, but despite a lack of any creative flair in the direction department and an attempt to drive the story towards one filled with tired conventions, the film is actually a thoroughly engaging affair.
This is surely down to two major factors. Firstly, the source material – Vera Brittain’s own memoir, covering the first quarter of the 20th century – is a strong basis on which to make a film. Also, the decision to only film the section of the memoir which deals with the four year period of the First World War rather than the twenty five years in Britain’s text saves the film from falling into the same trap as many a biopic before it, that of trying to show too much.
Secondly, the film is largely reliant on the wonderful central performance of its lead actress Alicia Vikander. While she does seem to treat an early scene of youthful innocence with a touch too much era-specific hammyness, and a tantrum shortly thereafter when her father buys her a piano threatens to derail our interest in this character early on, as the film progresses it’s fair to relegate these early missteps to director’s error. This is particularly noticeable when the director refuses to let the audience in on why she is so upset at being gifted a piano, a reaction that seems perfectly reasonable when we learn her reasons, but distances us from her when we don’t know.
Within the genre of war films, Testament of Youth offers a serious challenge to Francois Truffaut’s assertion that it is impossible to make an anti-war film because a film dealing in war must inevitably deal with the excitement and everyday heroism inherent to it. Indeed, Vera Brittain’s desperate attempt to get as close to the action as possible doesn’t completely contradict Truffaut, but focusing on those left behind rather than those who go to fight and die, the film makes the war look far more tragic than exciting. At the same time, knowing what we know about the war and British attitudes towards military service at the time, we ourselves can’t imagine how these young men could possibly have avoided their fate. Even the overly eager Roland Leighton strikes us as a tragic case rather than a naive or idiotic one, as could easily have been the case.
Films such as this are important reminders of why wars are such tragic and devastating events. To read that hundreds of thousands of British men died in the war can be a largely meaningless experience when compared with experiencing the story of a young woman who lost three or four of the young men she knew in her life. What the film truly captures is that the tragedy of war is not so much in the loss of power as it was in Shakespeare or in the loss of one’s own promising life as the bulk of war movies in the post-World War II era have told us. The true tragedy is suffered by those left behind, who lose loved ones in far off lands, and who live out their lives with the memories of those dead forever on their minds. In cinemas 16 January 2015. Watch the trailer here.