The Charm of Independent Cinema: Testament of Youth

Top: Actress Alicia Vikander with Shirley Williams, Brittain's daughter (Telegraph). Other photos Harpers Bazaar.
Last Wednesday I saw Testament of Youth with my Mum and sister at an independent cinema named the Empire in local Sandwich (a town I always mention!) Sandwich is special to me as my grandparents have lived there all their lives, I went to school there and I now work there! The cinema dates back to 1937 and has kept its original atmosphere, with its dated (but plush in those days) red velvet chairs, the teapot brewing in the interval and the lovely, vintage cardboard ticket slips. Back in the 40's the cinema would seat 600, with balcony rows; now it is a standard tiered auditorium that can squeeze in 130 people. My Mum clearly remembers going to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs here, on its re-release in the 70's.
For me, the thought of seeing this sort of film at a multiplex felt a bit wrong; the Empire aptly set the scene with its intimacy. Normally, watching a film here feels like you're on your sofa in the comfort of your own home, but unfortunately the ambience was slightly spoiled. We just so happened to sit next to a man- who seemed perfectly friendly and pleasant- but who had an ever-lasting bag of popcorn. He was rustling and crunching for two hours out of the two and a quarter film running time! It was so frustrating that every time the film would come to a particularly moving scene, in would go the hand, and then came the excruciating crackling sound. It feels so trivial to be moaning about popcorn noises when you've watched a film on one of the most horrible things imaginable, but that was what made me angry in the first place. It felt like this man was lacking in respect while watching such a serious, emotive depiction of real life.
Anyway- I think this guy's got more attention than deserved! The actual film was a wonder;
a harrowing account of a woman's standpoint on World War I, as her loved ones are sent to fight. I say sent but what was striking about the depiction of these men, was that they were quite desperate to go. They clearly did not know the fate which awaited them. A poignant line from Vera's brother showed this: "It will all be over in a month or so". If you aren't aware, Testament of Youth is based on the memoirs of WWI survivor, writer and pacifist Vera Brittain. Vera famously postponed her studies at Oxford University to serve as a voluntary aid detachment nurse in London, Malta and France; this other-worldly experience of humanity urged her to put her tales onto paper for the world to read, and in a bid to discourage war from happening again. Sadly it obviously did. I couldn't help thinking how relevant the closing speech of the film remains, where Vera states that Britain and their enemy are the same, that they're human, that they feel exactly the same, and that repeated revenge is wrecking the lives of millions.
James Kent managed to heighten the emotion in this film to an intense level, yet it's been done in such a natural, reverent way that I didn't shed too many tears, as I was expecting to. It's a film that absorbs you, demanding you to form opinions and soak up history, rather than blub for the tragic romance element. The deaths of even Vera's close ones aren't lingered on, almost as if to show that this was the norm; that this was every family's suffering. There is absolutely no violence shown; instead we are drawn into the blood bath battlegrounds where nurses fought to save British and German soldiers, some with much more feeling than others. In contrast, other parts of the film are filmed in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales and Derbyshire countryside, to symbolise Vera's ideal of world peace.
Alicia Vikander is a talented and determined actress, mirroring the sole determination of the woman she portrays. At the start of the film, she comes across as a little spoilt (she is from a wealthy family); this soon translates into hypersensitiveness and a strong sense of independence. She reminds me an awful lot of Felicity Jones, in terms of dedication to her part and her overall grace. Alicia's costumes kept my eye throughout the early stages of the film. In places I felt they looked almost too modern, but I suppose her family clearly had money, and who knows how fancy the options may have been for the richer back then. I especially loved a tassel detailed, embroidered jumper (pictured at the top), as well as her many dainty yet statement hats; Brittain was partial to these in real life. The costume department apparently scoured vintage caverns to collect up the pieces they believed Vera would have worn. The stylisation did detract from the meaning of the film in places, though the idea of the rich still being consumed by the war is a powerful one; emphasising the loss of control for the whole of society.
I would definitely recommend you go to see this film while it's on. Seeing this has made me put Testament of Youth on my reading list (I only knew the story through word of mouth and the media before) and it's made me want to look into teaching the war texts at A-Level English as an area of interest for my PGCE.


  1. Thanks for the film review! I will definitely be looking this up in my area!


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