Film review: Alicia Vikander lifts Testament of Youth beyond the normal realms of costume drama

06:58 15 January 2015

Testament of Youth

Testament of Youth

Archant

Our film critic Michael Joyce was expecting a mid-standard period production, but James Kent’s latest offering proved a more affecting affair.

Vera Brittain’s First World War memoir was published in 1933 and may well have established many of the cliches we associate with dramas about the period.

This film adaptation runs through such tried and tested favourites of the British costume drama as callow youths looking wistfully away from the public school playing fields on the eve of WW1; a headstrong young lady determined to defy the limits convention has placed upon her; the dreaming spires of Oxford; prestigious name actors in small cameo roles (Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson); a small notice in the newspaper about a duke being shot in Sarajevo.

But it has a strange duality: it is every bit as stiff and drama school formal as these occasions tend to be, while at the same time pulsing with a real and desperate vibrancy. These characters don’t feel like marionettes; it’s as if the blue fairy had descended upon a first season episode of Downton Abbey and turned the cast into real people.

I was settling in to watch the standard British costume drama – had my dutiful, respectful three star review half written in my head – and was confronted by a film with real energy and emotion. The film uses the now standard procedures for making historical dramas seem relevant, which is to shoot it as if they’re in denial about it being a period drama.

It uses lots of close ups and keeps the camera moving as much as possible; anything to distinguish it from a Merchant Ivory picture.

Alicia Vikander is phenomenally good as Brittain, though it may be more to the point to just say she is phenomenally good full stop. She is frighteningly controlled and precise, but without being mechanical; the emotions flow out of her. The Swedish actress should go on to be a star and a half.

She shines in a strong group. Most of the young male cast are basically chinless wonders but tremendously affecting chinless wonders.

Knowing that in a parallel history they would have been flouncing around in jaunty adaptations of Noel Coward plays makes watching them being churned up and destroyed by the trenches terribly poignant.

For a review of American Sniper and the re-release of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, visit halfmanhalfcritic.weebly.com

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