Back to IndieWire

London Fest Review: Heartbreaking ‘Testament Of Youth’ Stars Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander

London Fest Review: Heartbreaking ‘Testament Of Youth’ Stars Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander

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.

This Article is related to: Festivals and tagged , , , , ,