TESTAMENT OF YOUTH
2015, 129 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including bloody and disturbing war related images
Review by Joshua Handler
James Kent's tragic, yet important Testament of Youth is based off of Vera Brittain's bestselling WWI memoir of the same. Testament highlights the life of a woman who should be a household name, but who is instead a largely forgotten historical figure.
Brittain was a highly intelligent young woman who pursued an education at Oxford before leaving to be a nurse during WWI. The film tells of her wartime experiences, her romance with Roland (Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones), a family friend, and of the war's effects on Brittain's life.
Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, A Royal Affair) is Brittain and gives a radiant performance that carries all of the emotional weight of the film. It's a subtly-changing performance of beauty and tragedy that is among the best of the year thus far. Vikander's performance here is not unlike Marion Cotillard's in Two Days, One Night in that most of its emotion is conveyed through facial expressions, not words. Vikander shines in every moment she's given the opportunity to. This is the performance that confirms her as one of the most promising new talents in film today. Her performances in A Royal Affair and Ex Machina were very good, but this one is the one that shows that she's on her way to becoming one of the greats.
It is also to Juliette Towhidi and James Kent's credit that the film is as powerful as it is. While Testament could easily have been more powerful had it had 15-30 minutes cut off of it (there are one or two unnecessary subplots), Kent and Towhidi favor subtle character moments over scenes of big emotion, smartly relying on Vikander to pull the emotional weight instead of using a melodramatic score or other such heavy-handed contrivances. Even the traditional "big speech" scene that shows up in most biopics has immense power without resorting to sentimentality. It's a well-written scene, but Vikander's searing performance elevates it to a new level.
Overall, Testament of Youth is a beautiful film blunted by its running time, but ultimately redeemed by the immaculate craft (Rob Hardy's classically gorgeous cinematography is of particular note) and Vikander's astounding performance. While in many ways Testament is a traditional period drama, it is so much more due to the care with which the film was made and the subtlety of the filmmaking. Fans of British period dramas will adore this film, as will filmgoers who seek out romance. It's a worthwhile film and a good alternative for those not in the mood for more traditional summer movies.