War Torn – ★★★½
From tearful hanky-powered farewells on train platforms to the ordeals of a bloody, muddy military hospital James Kent’s feature debut tries to push all the buttons for a timeless melodramatic tale of war.
Testament of Youth is based on the autobiography of Vera Brittain and begins in the years before Europe is ripped apart by the outbreak of The Great War and shows the personal toll it can take on a woman trying to find herself. Brittain (Alicia Vikander) battles her father to be allowed to go to Oxford (no mean feat in the era of suffragettes and before “the vote”) but then turns her back on her studies to serve as a military nurse, first in Britain and then at the Front in France. Before the outbreak of war she falls in love with Roland Leighton (Kit Harington), a school friend of her brother Edward (Taron Egerton). Rounding out the pack is their largely forgettable friend Victor (sorry Colin Morgan) and the Brittain parents played by Dominic West and Emily Watson.
This illiterate reviewer had not read the book and so was able to be swept up in the wonderful romance in play between Roland and Vera. Harington isn’t a very versatile actor as fans of “Game Of Thrones” will know, but he does angst-laden, frowning romantic very well. Like in GoT, he identifies a cause (in this case War – not The Wall) and if that gets in the way of romantic fulfilment, then so be it. A few silly mis-adventures aside (the auntie-plays-chaperone scenes with “The Thick Of It’s” Joanna Scanlan for example), their relationship is well developed and paints a brilliant picture of just how hard the people of Western Europe must have been hit when the War – which was supposed to be done and dusted quickly – just kept dragging on.
We see very no real combat or trench scenes, instead focusing on the toll the war took on the people nearby in the military units and those back home waiting on news of loved ones. The film doesn’t feel like it had a huge budget, but the production values are all brilliant and it’s a much more relatable sense of war-time Britain than we usually see in the likes of War Horse or “Downton Abbey”.
Vikander gives a good performance in the lead but is perhaps a little too polished and well-presented to be completely believable as a woman physically and mentally falling apart. Would hair and make-up really have been that good in the huts full of dying Tommys and huns just a few miles back from enemy lines? It’s just an aside though and the Swedish-born actress deserves huge credit for being the lynchpin for the entire film. She has lots of projects coming up, starting with next week’s Ex_Machina.
Under-developed supporting characters (there’s a unspoken gay subplot that feels rushed) and final scenes that kind of whimper away as life “post-war” kicks off for all involved are the only major flaws with a worthwhile example that sometimes doing things the old-fashioned way is just the job.
Released across Ireland on January 16th 2015
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