Review: Testament of Youth


The book Testament of Youth is the first installment of Vera Brittain's memoir. Published in 1933, it was hailed as a classic look at the impact of World War I on British noncombatants, and it is considered an important piece of feminist literature. The memoir was made into a five-part miniseries by the BBC in 1979. This is the first film adaptation, and it's all very Masterpiece Theater-ish, so if you like those sorts of period dramas, get ready to have a reserved, contemplative time, interrupted by a few scenes depicting the horrors of war.

The movie opens on Armistice Day, as a grim Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander, Ava in Ex Machina) pushes her way through a euphoric crowd celebrating the end of the war. Flash back four years to 1914, where young Vera's father (Dominic West) royally pisses off his daughter by purchasing a piano after claiming that the family didn't have enough money to send Vera to study at Oxford.

Vera's brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), tries to get Vera to relax and socialize with his friends, Victor (Colin Morton) and Roland (Kit Harington from Game of Thrones). He also lobbies his father and mother (Emily Watson) on Vera's behalf. Dad eventually agrees to let her go to Oxford, even though it seems wasteful to spend all that money educating such a marriageable lass.

About Vera's brother and his friends: Edward is cute, good-natured, tactile and chummy. The film hints that he's gay. Victor is sweet and clearly smitten with Vera, which means he doesn't stand a chance with her. Roland is dreamy and self-assured, plus he's got the Game of Thrones thing going for him. Vera likes what she sees, but of course she's too busy being self-possessed to get swept away by a boy.

Vera gets into Oxford; Roland is going too. The two begin courting, with a chaperone (Joanna Scanlon) maintaining a watchful eye. What fun! But wait, all of that soon takes a backseat as the war looms large. The guys head for the enlistment office, and Vera soon leaves Oxford to become a nurse.

My reaction to Testament of Youth was mixed. I remained acutely aware that the story was based on fact – these things happened to real people. I recognized that Brittain's memoir is an important feminist statement. Still, I've seen so many period dramas about independent young women trying to make their way through a repressive society and I've seen so many war stories that I had to fight to keep from rolling my eyes.

At times it seemed like director James Kent and screenwriter Juliette Towhidi had a list of clichés required to be included in any British period drama/war story, and were dutifully checking them off. Tearful train station departure. Check! Romantic interlude with ominous overtones. Check!

Of course, I may just be too jaded to accept the film at face value. I see a lot more movies than most people and sometimes that works against me. Also, I am not a fan of British period dramas set in repressed times. I'm obliged to share my reaction to the film with you, however. In the case of this production I was engaged, but most definitely not swept away.

That said, Testament of Youth is well-intentioned and achingly sincere. It's message is powerful and clearly stated. And it's well-acted. There is an audience that will find this film rewarding. I'm not part of it, but you might be.


Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.

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