London Fest Review: Heartbreaking ‘Testament Of Youth’ Stars Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander
By Matt Mueller | Thompson on HollywoodOctober 15, 2014 at 5:40PM
Although it’s based on British pacifist author Vera Brittain’s World War One memoirs and stars “Game Of Thrones”’ Kit Harington and rising Swedish star Alicia Vikander, “Testament Of Youth” flew in under the radar at this year’s BFI London Film Festival.
Kit Harington & Alicia Vikander in Testament Of Youth
There was little fanfare, in large part because the filmmakers only had the final print ready a week before the festival. But the fact that BFI LFF head Clare Stewart had selected the film for one of her coveted headline gala slots – the ‘Centrepiece Gala’, no less – seemed promising.
And so it proved, with “Testament Of Youth” turning out to be the festival’s genuine surprise, an intimate epic that’s old-fashioned in telling but searing in impact thanks to the potency of heartbreaking events – war laying waste to an entire generation – and the power of Vikander, who brings the intelligent, perceptive Vera to bright, vivid life.
This is a British film that does many things exquisitely well, and benefits from a shining array of memorable supporting characters and performances. But from opening to closing credits, it’s Vikander’s face that rivets as our dignified guide on this painful emotional journey, as the free-spirited Vera discovers, initially, joy and elation (winning a place at Oxford; falling in love with her younger brother’s dashing friend) before pitiless wartime realities and grief close in as she volunteers to nurse on the front lines and loses the young men she cherishes. (Did we say Vikander was Swedish? She navigates through with barely a hint of Scandinavian inflection.)
Brittain’s story is filled with both hope and despair. “Testament Of Youth” opens on an idyllic portrait of pre-WW1, middle-class English life, as Vera flies in the face of her conservative parents (Dominic West, Emily Watson) to pursue her literary ambitions, encouraged by her intoxicating romance with Harington’s Roland. Alongside Harington, looking nothing like the tousle-haired heartthrob from “Game Of Thrones” and “Pompeii” but charismatic nonetheless, are Taron Egerton and Colin Morgan as Vera’s beloved brother Edward and another friend, Victor, who also harbours feelings for her. All three actors register strongly as the film’s honourable young heroes, volunteering to represent their country in Europe’s blood-soaked trenches.
There is also sterling support from West, Watson, Miranda Richardson as a stern Oxford don who initially dismisses Vera as a “debutante” and Hayley Atwell as a no-nonsense frontline nurse who dispenses cheery, stiff-upper-lip advice amidst the misery and amputations (although Atwell’s role feels like it may have been curtailed in the edit). A huge stack of credit goes to director James Kent, working from an astute script by Juliette Towhidi, for making an impressive transition from British television drama with this handsomely shot debut.
With the right strategy (and distributor belief) behind it, “Testament Of Youth” certainly has potential to vie for awards – BAFTAs in particular – although an absence of award-friendly names may hurt its chances in that regard. But it will be a welcome outcome if it does happen, if for no other reason than it would place this moving period drama, in which both romance and tragedy are keenly expressed and felt throughout, in front of more eyes.
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