Testament of Youth (2014)


As I’m sure I’ve mentioned once or twice before, I’m an ex-pat Brit now living the life of Reilly in the land of the long white cloud. As such I hold a few bits and pieces of classic Britishness very close to my heart which remind me of old Blighty and everything I left behind. First and foremost amongst these Anglophilic items is the BBC (the others, if you’re interested, are Butterscotch Angel Delight, Cadbury’s Minstrels and the Shipping Forecast).

The BBC has never let me down. Its licence fee funding model means it’s not held to ransom by market forces and as a result it’s able to produce what we, the great unwashed, need rather than what we want. It produces TV and films and generally hit the mark time and time again. BBC Films started knocking out feature content in the 90’s. A short list of its’ successes includes: Billy Elliot, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Philomena, Saving Mr Banks and The Lady in the Van.


My film tonight is another one of these films which has been lovingly crafted in the BBC Films shed. ‘Testament of Youth’ is a drama based on the memoir of the same name written by pacifist Vera Brittain. It’s not the first time the BBC have set their sights on transferring Brittain’s book. It was a TV show back in the 70’s and a radio series in the late 90’s and I can see why. It has all the hallmarks of the kind of things the BBC knocks out as bread and butter content. It’s a deeply British costume drama, the characters are well to do types, the story has triumphs over adversity and overtones of stoicism and repression. It’s deeply British.

Vera Brittain for those that don’t know (me included before watching this) was a pacifist. Her experiences of the Great War had a huge effect on her and after a few failed attempts at writing about her experiences in different formats she finally produced a memoir of her war time years in the early 30’s. It struck a chord with the people of the time for its honest portrayal of the lives of women during the war, the war work, the deaths of family & friends and the ongoing impact of the conflict on the survivors and general populace.


The book, not that I’ve read it, covers Brittains’ life from her early teens right through to her mid-twenties.  For the film the focus has been placed on the Great War years. It picks up as she gains entrance to Oxford, a young lady on the up as her male friends and brothers are slowly picked up for training by the military machine. Newspaper headlines draw attention to the diplomatic moves in the slow advance to war.

That list I mentioned earlier of BBC Film successes shows there is some diversity to the types of movies the BBC has bankrolled over the years. This film falls slap-bang in the middle ground. It feels like a BBC film. The middle class accents, the costumes, the cinematography, the story telling are all pretty middle of the road. If it wasn’t for the real life story being told I’m not sure it would really hold my interest too much.


The story of Vera Brittains’ war years is a harrowing but sadly common one. Friends and family members die one after the other in the fighting. She does her bit by volunteering as a nurse and spends time firstly in a UK hospital and then off to France. She struggles with the deaths but somehow holds it together as she gets smashed by one piece of bad news after another.

The film doesn’t really touch upon the genesis of her pacifist views until the final few minutes and I feel this is to its’ detriment. What we basically have is a woman coping with the effects of war and, while this makes for a decent film, it doesn’t break any new ground. As I chunter towards 100 Great War Film reviews I’ve grown bored of films like this as they chuck up one thread-bare and overused storyline after another. I was really interested to know more than just the War Is Bad – Peace Is Good kind of stuff.


There were plenty of good bits from a filmic perspective, the acting was good from a semi all-star cast including Alicia Vikander in the starring role with Miranda Richardson (oh Queenie!) and some other faces I recognise. There’s a bit where Vera tries to find out the truth behind her boyfriend’s death. It becomes a bit like ‘A Very Long Engagement’ as she won’t take no for an answer to find the truth. It turns out he died slowly and in pain not valiantly, quickly and painlessly as she was told. She lies to her family that he did indeed die valiantly, quickly and painlessly.

But then there are some bad bits too. As I’ve already mentioned it’s a bit vanilla for the most part and doesn’t do anything you don’t expect. There’s a bit where a character gets sick just prior to the start of the war and there’s mention of the Spanish Flu. Now I’ve done a quick google and I’m pretty sure Spanish Flu doesn’t kick off until mid-1917 at the very earliest. Lazy writing.


Overall, I think the good bits outweigh the bad. The performance by Vikander in the lead role was solid and those around her also chucked in good knocks. I think the writers missed the mark a bit and what has hit my screen is a bit bland and uninspiring. It has the feeling of a made for TV film rather than a full-bore feature. With that ‘Made for TV’ hat on the film makes more sense and I can imagine flipping over to BBC1 at 9pm on a Saturday and seeing the credits role. But as for paying money to go and watch this on the big screen, I’d feel a little cheated.

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