Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Testament of Youth

If I were to attach a single descriptive word to the cinematic style of a country, for French cinema it would be realism, for American cinema innovation, Italian cinema extravagance and for British cinema tradition. The simple elegance of British film is matchless, its storytelling whilst rarely novel is consistently poised, impeccable and boasts flawless sophistication. This is the simplest way in which I can illustrate the astonishing potency of the poetic war feature Testament of Youth. The film is richly character-based, the development of each individual character is patiently, even artfully crafted with leading light Alicia Vikander a visionary figure. The young actress can only be described as a vessel of high calibre cinema, slowly coming into full form. She is continuously expressive, poignant and marvellously composed. The cinematography adopts an elementary beauty, each shot intricate and detailed but always naturally constructed. Ultimately, Testament of Youth proves a worthy, moving tribute to a lost generation and tells a compelling story of the struggles of those the soldiers left back home.

Testament of Youth captures the life of writer Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) at a pivotal point not only in her own existence, but in world history. The sweet balance of her somewhat privileged life is lost when warfare triggers the passion, patriotism and vigour of the young generation. Suddenly, every young man in the life of Brittain is dropped into immediate danger as dreams of honour and idealism drive them to enlistment. Her brother (Taron Egerton), her lover (Kit Harington) and her friend (Colin Morgan) are all pulled into the destructive force of the First World War, and whether they emerge at its end is anyone's guess and everyone's most desperate hope. 

The film critic community has developed a somewhat unhealthy obsession with the concept of "originality" but a clear distinction needs to be drawn between traditional storytelling and the cliché, hackneyed, tired and borrowed. A well told tale of simple dynamics should be as highly valued as a one of complex dimensions. American filmmaking is grounded in creativity and entrepreneurial concepts (e.g. Scorsese, Tarantino, Kubrick) but British cinema has always been more concerned with perfecting the well-established stories, which is exactly what Testament of Youth has achieved. It is not anything particularly new and yet it manages a storytelling manner of grace, accuracy and faith. Vera Brittain's account as a young woman "left behind" during the Great War whilst not thematically novel, still manages to be consistently compelling, truthful and significant. 

During the opening scenes of the film the audience is introduced to Brittain's simple life: her relentless pursuit of education, equality and respect and her newfound love. When the Great War dawns on the nation, however, Brittain's personal endeavours and struggles immediately become trivialised. This story arc is a familiar one but the truly remarkable feature of this film is the manner in which this well-versed narrative is portrayed. Director James Kent adopts an honest, sobering approach, stripped of sentimentalities so that all that is left is the cold, hard truth of a cold, hard war. It speaks volumes of the many faces of war - the ugly sacrifices, debilitating grief, desire and desperation, the empty promises of honour and nobility and the bittersweet, ever-lingering ghost of hope. Further yet, the feature extends beyond its expected realm and procures some curious notions in regards to the effect of harsh realities on young idealism. 

The film never loses its visual appeal as it transitions swiftly from location to location in the steady progression of Brittain's life. Cinematographer Rob Hardy captures the simple, unadulterated allure of the natural British landscape: unruly woods untouched, cool foggy mornings of a never-ending pasture and a swimming lake created of childhood memories. Hardy also succeeds in portraying the odd beauties of the warzone, a golden morning lighting the trenches and no-man's land.  The feature's visual and emotional stamina is supported by a moving score filled with melancholic compositions. However, it is not the stunning aesthetic or the resounding melodies which will sell this film, but the ineffable performance by Alicia Vikander. The swedish actress' contribution to Joe Wright's Anna Karenina and the superb Danish flick A Royal Affair were both widely revered. Vikander has already garnered much attention for her beautifully emphatic, tempestuous performances. With Vikander at the helm of the feature, it is difficult to take your eyes of the screen. The young performer is unfalteringly convincing, thorough, realistic and never sensationalised or melodramatic. Much of the same can be said of Kit Harington's portrayal of Brittain's love interest, who provides a memorable representation of the toll that war takes on young, innocent minds and hearts. 

What Testament of Youth offers is a pure, honest portrayal of the dire desolation that war brings with it. The absence of drawn out sentimentalities, extensive, weepy farewells and verbal grieving angst is notable. Regardless of this however, a heavy sadness clings desperately to the eloquent feature and will linger forevermore in the minds of its stunned audience. 


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