Frances Winston takes a look at this highly-acclaimed British film, based on a true story
Directed by: James Kent
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan, Dominic West, Emily Watson, Hayley Atwell, Anna Chancellor, Miranda Richardson
Based on the internationally acclaimed best-selling memoirs of writer and pacifist, Vera Brittain, and released to coincide with the centenary of the beginning of World War I, this film documents her experiences of love and loss, as she worked as a nurse during the conflict, having put her academic aspirations on hold.
Brittain wrote Testament of Youth in 1933, and it has never been out of print. Widely regarded as one of the most important accounts of the realities of the First World War, it doesn’t tiptoe around the devastation and death caused by the fighting. Brittain was a privileged young girl from a well to do family, with aspirations to be a writer, who had just been accepted to Oxford when the war broke out.
As her brother, fiancé, and friends joined up to play their part, she felt unable to sit idly by and so volunteered as a nurse. As the war raged on she lost them all on the battlefield, and saw things that changed her forever. At the end of the war she returned to Oxford, but was changed, and what she saw and experienced influenced all her future choices.
Brittain is played here by Swedish actress Vikander, who was surely selected for the role thanks to her ability to cry on demand. She weeps and wails her way through this, managing to remain serenely beautiful despite the floods of tears. Game of Thrones star, Kit Harington, is almost unrecognisable as Brittain’s fiancé, Roland Leighton, having cut his trademark curly hair and shaved off his beard for the role. He proves himself a surprisingly competent actor here, and really shakes off his fantasy hero persona.
Of course they are ably supported by some fantastic veteran actors, including Miranda Richardson, who is one of the UK’s leading character actresses, and Emily Watson, who never really reached the heights that her talent deserved. Dominic West dons his best stiff upper lip as Brittain’s father, but does have one beautiful moment, when his son Edward ships out to war, and Hayley Atwell turns in an eye opening performance as a cynical and somewhat sadistic sister in a military hospital.
Overall, it is impossible to fault the performances, with all of the actors working well together and truly embodying their roles.
The cinematography is beautiful in this, with the romantic English landscape contrasting nicely with the harshness of the Front. The soundtrack also compliments the story beautifully, and never overshadows the story. The script is somewhat insipid at times though, and the characters are written far more stoically than you would imagine most of the situations they find themselves in dictate.
This is a BBC production, and there is always an underlying feeling that they were unsure if it was going to get a cinema release or be broadcast on television, and at times it feels like the producers hedged their bets. Even at its most epic, there is always a bit of a sense of the “made for TV” about this. You never really get the full sense of the brutality of the war, and it all feels a bit romanticised.
With the First World War in the news for the past few months, this is likely to find an audience that it otherwise wouldn’t. No doubt the presence of Harington will draw in a younger demographic, who would not normally go to see this kind of film. Since that period is an important part of history, that is a good thing.
This is a fascinating account of the personal price paid by people during the Great War, and deserves to be seen. However, it never really gets as gritty as it could, and while it is enjoyable it is almost Jane Austen-esque at times. It looks stunning and is very engaging, but it could have been a lot more brutal, which would have been a truer reflection of the period.
It’s definitely worth a look though, if only to remind yourself how lucky you are that you didn’t have to live through something like this.
In cinemas January 16