Testament of Youth is a powerful story of love, war and remembrance, based on the First World War memoir by Vera Brittain, which has become the classic testimony of that war from a woman's point of view. A searing journey from youthful hopes and dreams to the edge of despair and back again, it's a film about young love, the futility of war and how to make sense of the darkest times.
Have you ever caught a movie on Blu-ray or cable, randomly given it a shot, and then loved it so much that you're shocked that it could make its way through a theatrical run without getting heaps of praise? That's the experience that I had with 'Testament of Youth.' Instantly becoming one of my favorite films of 2015, I'm at a loss for words – not only because it's not acclaimed and buzzing going into the awards season, but because it's such a beautiful period piece that it completely took me over emotionally.
'Testament of Youth' is the adaptation of Vera Brittain's memoir about coming of age in Europe during World War I. Television director James Kent immediately makes a name for himself with this, his beautiful theatrical feature debut. Alicia Vikander's performance in 'Ex Machina' is likely to earn her an Oscar nomination – but if it doesn't, her portrayal of Vera Brittain is a worthy back-up.
Vera Brittain was a strong-willed woman with firm beliefs and the conviction to act entire upon those beliefs – no matter what. The narrative of 'Testament of Youth' begins in 1914 on the eve of World War I. Vera and her family were well-off. Her brother Edward (Taron Egerton, 'Kingsman: The Secret Service') was her best friend; the friends that he made at prep school were also her friends. As determined as she was, the only thing lacking from Vera's life was her ability to follow her dream of studying writing at Somerville College, Oxford. After much persuasion from her and Edward, Vera's father and mother (Dominic West and Emily Watson, respectively) finally conceded to let her apply. They'd intended for her to follow the societal norm and get married, but her first passion was writing – that is, until she met Edward's classmate Roland Leighton (Kit Harington, 'Game of Thrones').
Vera wasn't like the other girls – but Roland wasn't like the other boys either. Each governed strongly be their emotions and desires to write, they immediately hit it off. Vera's decision to apply for Oxford was never an issue for Roland to accept. And when the war began and Roland enlisted, Vera entirely supported him in his decision.
As Roland, Edward and nearly all of their other male friends went to war, Vera was left behind. Accepted to Oxford, she had expected to be there at the same time that they were. Instead, she was left alone with peers that – aside from a schoolmaster – didn't understand her. After one year of getting letters from Roland explaining the horror stories from the frontline in France and seeing the wounded young men returning home, she could no longer sit back and study. The strength of her will and spirit could be put to use helping those wounded soldiers in need. Vera took leave from Oxford to work as a voluntary nurse. Doing selfless, remarkable things and bearing the same heavy burdens as those fighting on the front, she wouldn't return to Oxford until after the war was over.
The first third of 'Testament of Youth' is the calm before the storm. We see Vera in her innocent, youthful and hope-filled time of her life. Watching the relationship unfold between her and Roland is more naturally romantic than almost anything out there - but because of a gloomy opening sequence that teases Vera's degraded and changed character over the span of the war, it's bittersweet. We don't know exactly what lies ahead, but we know that this cheerful happiness is not going to last for long.
The second and third acts depict the loss of innocence. We see how the war starts to change Vera, Roland, Edward and company. They are no longer the group of friends that we initial see playing in the beautiful English countryside. They're starting to learn the brutal, harsh and frightening truth about the world in which they live. Although each is filled with courage, there's an unspoken sense of shock and terror within each of them. It's as if they're frightened and shaken up, yet it's not socially acceptable to discuss it with others. You can feel it in the sub-text. In their own right, we see each one stricken with what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
'Testament of Youth' is an honest depiction of the emotional journey that one would experience if touched first-hand by war. The memoir is known as being the defining book of the generation who experienced it. With men and women still serving in wars today, the anthropological and psychological effects that we see now are not all that different from what's depicted in the film. Until wars cease to exist, the relevancy of its message will be universal. The film adaptation is not only genuine in its message, but it's filled with beauty. Thanks to the actors, the script, the cinematography and direction, it's one that you'll connect with and be glad that you did.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Classics has placed 'Testament of Youth' on a Region A/B/C BD-50 and placed it in a case that's made of slightly thinner-than-usual blue plastic. While there's quite a bit that plays before the static and music-set main menu, all of it - the Sony reel and the trailers (all of which can be accessed from the main menu) - is skippable.
'Testament of Youth' arrives on Blu-ray with a gorgeous 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that's perfectly fitting for the film. This is 100 percent my personal opinion, but a historical tale like this wouldn't benefit from a perfectly crisp and extremely detailed transfer. That's not to say that it's not crisp and detailed. The video features the high qualities of modern cinema, but not the trademarks of digital cinema.
The style and sharpness is almost identical to that of Vikander's other notable 2015 release 'Ex Machina,' which makes perfect sense considering 'Testament of Youth' was lit and shot by the same filmmakers. What you get is a pretty view of the early 20th century. Details - like those of costuming and facial features - can clearly be seen, but the lighting, focus and an overall period piece-like haze keep it from feeling like a brand new shiny perfectly shot picture.
Natural lighting is often used and sunlight can create a beautiful bright wash over the screen. Rays of light even burst through the lense at times. The result is stunning. A visual treat. I cannot think of another film as beautifully shot in 2015 as this. During the peaceful first act, colorization is accented. Nature settings are full of vibrancy. As the story take us into the war, the spectrum of the palette narrows. Black levels become more prevalent and carry a nice strength about them, but one scene scene that follows Vera from an indoor setting to an outdoor one shows an inconsistency. The indoor contrast makes the should-be dark areas of the screen appear washed out.
Aside from the single wavering contrast level issue, the video quality of 'Testament of Youth' is brilliant. There's no sign of noise, aliasing, bands or artifacts. Sony hit a home run with this disc.
'Testament of Youth' comes with a fantastic 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that excels with its music and environmental effects.
The film kicks off by following Vera in a dream-like stupor. It's obvious that something has happened to affect her, but we don't know what. In contrast, there are crowds of happy people surrounding her. In her daze, the crowd sounds carry a distant, far-off echoey tunnel-like quality (like that of Tom Hanks at the end of 'Saving Private Ryan'). The scene starts of with cheers and sounds of firecrackings popping from all around the room, but transitions into this dazed audio the further she makes her way through the crowd. This opening scene defines the detail that's placed in each setting throughout the film. Much attention was placed on using dynamic environmental effects to make the settings come to life. When set on the shore, the sounds of waves with gently image seamlessly from the front of the room to the back. City sidewalk settings make cars pass through the room from side to side. Rain storms feature immersive and deep effects that hit all around. No matter the locale, you're always brought right into it thanks to the audio mixing.
'Testament of Youth' is carried along by a beautiful score that comfortably fills the space. Like the color palette, the tone and brightness of the music changes as we move through the darkening story. It's dynamic range and swells are thoughtfully used to accent the on-screen content.
The vocal mixing is flawless, but doesn't quite grasp the attention like the effects and music mixing.
'Testament of Youth' came out of nowhere and instantly became one of my favorite films of the year. From directing to writing, cinematography to acting, it's a gorgeous experiential film that emotionally reels you in and builds a connection strong enough to make you genuinely care for the characters. From the director of photography and the lighting team behind 'Ex Machina,' the imagery is picturesque. The near-perfect video quality does it proper justice. The lossless audio mix is just as noteworthy. A few solid little special features are included, but more would have been nice. Despite that, 'Testament of Youth' is definitely a highly recommended must-see film.