It seems the actress to watch this year is Alicia Vikander. From appearing as a robot in Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina, to starring alongside Ewan McGregor in the gritty Son Of A Gun – you can’t escape her. And with a list of roles so diverse, she’s not likely to be easily typecast.
Her first film reeled out this year saw the 26-year-old Swedish star put in a stunning performance as Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth.
Director James Kent cast her after seeing her in the excellent Danish film A Royal Affair. He was struck by her luminosity on screen, which is very apparent in Testament of Youth. Kent has a background in documentary film-making and perhaps that informs the amount of facial close ups and attention to details. Faces are studied for every nuance of emotion. Vikander lights up the screen and conveys a breadth of emotion through her eyes. From tender and attentive in her romance with Roland Leighton played by Kit Harington to the fiercely impassioned campaigner when giving a rallying speech against the futility of war, to the fiery defiance in her exchanges with her father (Dominic West). She displays a vulnerability matched with a steely determination.
Vera Brittain’s daughter is Baroness Shirley Williams, and she apparently took a lot of persuasion to agree to her mother’s book of the same name, being interpreted for the big screen. Vikander was understandably nervous when she met Williams but at a live satellite Q&A broadcast from the BFI Southbank, Williams professed to be more than happy with the young Swede’s protrayal and could see no-one else taking on that role.
At the Q&A Vikander said she felt an affinity with Brittain and admired her drive as a young intelligent woman trying to make her way in a world where even having dreams of a university education was frowned upon and discouraged.
Williams worried a movie of her mother’s book would be reduced to a tragic love story, with the focus on Brittain’s romance with Roland. Testament of Youth is about so much more. It’s about the three men in Brittain’s life, Roland Leighton, (Kit Harington) best friend Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan) and her brother Edward (Taron Egerton). As well as being a testament to them, it’s also a testament to the era and to all the men and families who suffered during and after the first world war.
This is one woman’s experience of war, an historical account seen through her eyes. Initially her fight is to get to Oxford and sit exams, which was a battle for women at the time. Fresh from class, she picks up a newspaper and looks through the countless pages, lists of names of those who have fallen on the battlefield. Suddenly her idealistic ambitions of education pale into significance. She volunteers as a nurse and tries to piece together the wounded and nurse the dying.
Throughout the film we see Brittain’s transformation. The young optimistic girl who went to Oxford with dreams of becoming a writer found herself walking through a sea of dead and broken bodies cruelly cast aside from the battlefields. The hospital huts are full and in one arresting scene we watch an aerial camera shot as Brittain picks her way outside the hospital hits. The rain is heavy, the ground muddy and soldiers are sprawled everywhere.
There’s a pivotal scene where Brittain, initially surprised to be tending to injured German solders, finds herself comforting one of them as he dies. There’s a realisation that we are all the same. A uniform doesn’t distinguish the dying wish of a man who cries out for a loved one with his last breath. The absurdness of war strikes her as she writes to her brother Edward – here I am Edward trying to keep alive the very men you are risking your life to kill – it makes you think. it really makes you think.
There’s the contrast of Brittain’s early life. The carefree closeness of friends growing up, swimming in lakes and wandering through lush English countryside.
With war, the colours become dark, muted and the space of the film is very claustrophobic.
D Day arrives to much rejoicing and celebration, the war has been won, but Brittain has lost everything. We get a glimpse of the pacifist that Vera Brittain became as she steps up to give an impassioned speech about the futility of war. She returns to Oxford to resume her studies but nothing can ever be the same again.
Testament of Youth – a book by Vera Brittain