The Foyle Film Festival in Derry-Londonderry opens with a torrential tapestry of turbulent events in a World War I setting
The "based on a true story" narrative in films has been tinkered with, tempered with and downright violated with enough times for any experienced viewer to take such films with more than a pinch of salt. To that extent, such films must earn their believability by creating a plausible world of their own, via strong storytelling that captures the essence but more importantly the heart of the factual characters and setting. In that respect, James Kent's first feature film, Testament Of Youth, passes the test with flying colours, attaining its goals through atmospheric authenticity, calm visual expressionism and a lead performance for the ages.
How reliable are one's memories? That's the first question director Kent appears to be asking as he and screenwriter Juliette Towhidi delve into the "Letters From A Lost Generation" that accompany the memoirs of main character Vera Brittain, played here by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. It's a question central to the torrential tapestry of Testament Of Youth, a series of turbulent events that will shape the physical and memorial ideologies of every single character in the piece.
And when we begin, a shadow is already cast on Vera's fearful face: on Armistice Day, in November 1918. But Vera cannot join in the celebrations; she only wants peace. And she finds refuge in a painting of the Great Flood, a sharply metaphorical image that on one hand recalls loss of life in the First World War, and on the other hand, an alienated girl drowning in a sea of suffocation.
Flash back four years and Vera is emerging from a lake into a series of light-hearted sequences that reflect the idealistic dreaminess in pre-war 1910s Britain. (Britain, Brittain - surely not a coincidence?) The banter between Vera, her cheerful friend Victor (Colin Morgan) and her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) is pleasant and unaffected, sharply countering her slightly controlling father (Dominic West), a man fearful of losing his daughter to the Oxford education she so desires and, later, his son to the war. It's a clever, unforced illustration of freedom of expression vs. the status of the pater familias, and rings true to the time.
It is Vera's future fiancé Roland (Kit Harington), a bit of a poet himself, who convinces Vera's father to let her sit the entrance exam, and the contrasting moods throughout their courtship and Vera's path to university are explored elegantly. Blatant reaction shots are eschewed in favour of free-flowing if sometimes pointed interactivity. Vera tells Roland: "(Your poem) was a little dry, as if you were holding back. I couldn’t find you in it." Criticism hurts, whether the recipient deems it necessary or not, yet Roland takes it as a challenge, a means to improve his poetry - the very gift that the war will rob from him. It's painful to look upon the film in hindsight and recall Vera admitting to Roland, "I've never known where I fit". For later on, neither will he.
The dangers of the real tragedy being superseded by the fake one, that it will be more about a couple's fortunes, or one woman's fortunes, than those of everyone else during the war, are removed by a tight, thoughtful, sure handed approach to in which we experience absolutely everyone's suffering: on both sides. Put Kaiser Wilhelm II's immortally incorrect idiom in context ("You will be home before the leaves have fallen") and everything about the emotions before logic, feelings before consequences ideology of this Testament Of Youth, opportunism without oppression, breaks down and becomes clear.
In all of this, Vera is our focal point: if Alicia Vikander may not be the most experienced or even gifted actor in a parade of stars (Dominic West, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson), she is pivotal. Vikander is the heart, the fulcrum, the quietly intimate and determinedly deep soul that paints growing, gripping tableaux of terror before our eyes. Moments of relief are few as Vera and Roland lose sight of their dreams, the horrors of war damaging their formerly wistful hearts and minds in different ways: Roland to protect both Vera and his masculinity, Vera to protect others by becoming a nurse. If Roland's damaged head overtakes his heart, Vera's wounded heart overtakes her head. It is a staggering dichotomy with shattering outcomes for both of them, and many more.
By war's end, populations have been pierced and priorities skewed as Vera resembles the broken shell we saw at the start of a journey we have felt every single minute of. As Vera's future colleague and friend Winifred Holtby will tell her: "All of us are surrounded by ghosts. Now we have to learn how to live with them." This defines Testament Of Youth as a sort of lost paradise - a Paradise Lost, perhaps? - for the current, commemorative generation, a burden it shoulders with admirable grace and remarkable skill.
The Foyle Film Festival runs until Sunday November 23 in Derry-Londonderry. Check out www.foylefilmfestival.org for more information.