Audiences are used to seeing Kit Harrington battle unspeakable horrors.
Starring as Jon Snow, lord commander of the Night’s Watch, on HBO’s hit fantasy series “Game of Thrones,” Harrington has stood as civilization’s first line of defense against wildling hordes and armies of the undead for five seasons now.
With his new film, “Testament of Youth,” Harrington returns to the battlefield, and it’s a story that all the more tragic because of its undeniable truth.
Based on the 1933 memoir by noted author and pacifist Vera Brittain, the film is a powerful story of love and loss during World War I. Harrington co-stars in the film, now playing in select theaters as Roland Leighton, an aspiring poet who sparks a romance with Brittain before shipping out to the war’s front lines.
“When it came through the door from my agent, I was surprised that they were making it into a film, but pleasantly surprised,” said Harrington, who first read “Testament of Youth” at 16 and studied it twice in school. “I was very keen to do (the film), so I chased this part. I chased this movie.”
“Testament of Youth” director James Kent recalled that “Kit came in, and he really, desperately wanted this role. It was a wonderful antidote, if you like, to the more repressed Jon Snow on ‘Game of Thrones.’ He wanted a much more emotional springboard to show what he was capable of.”
Harrington does powerful, vulnerable work with limited screen time in the film. The story is vividly told from the perspective of Brittain, played in the film by Alicia Vikander, the breakout Swedish star of this year’s buzz-worthy sci-fi film “Ex Machina.”
The London-born Harrington, 28, leaves the film for a significant stretch when his character is off at war. He returns for a handful of moving scenes a changed man, suffering from what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“All of the male characters in the movie are Vera’s memories, snapshots of this period for her,” said Harrington. “And, I really liked that about this movie, that the war wasn’t actually shown. It wasn’t depicted really other than on the homefront and through Vera’s experience of nursing. And that gave me a chance to do something quite unique with this role, which is go away for a period of the movie, come back and show a completely different person. At the same age, 19 years old, go away as a sort of teenager and come back as a man having experienced only a couple of weeks of this war.”
Kent said that Harrington, who can be by turns both rugged and tender, was exactly what he was looking for in casting the role of Roland.
“Kit is a soulful, intelligent, emotionally-profound young man,” said Kent. “He’s not too ‘alpha male,’ if you know what I mean. A lot of young actors are. I think that (something different) is exactly what we needed.”
“It was quite liberating, doing this movie because of my long experience with ‘Game of Thrones,’ ” Harrington said. “On ‘Game of Thrones,’ you’re a tiny cog in a massive machine. What you’re doing is small compared to what the rest of the background has to do, the effects that have to be done. It takes hours and hours to set up a shot. And if the smoke’s not right in the background, there’s no way your performance is going to make it.
“So what was really, really liberating about doing this role was that actually it was all about performance. It was a much, much smaller crew, a much, much smaller set. We were focused on the performance rather than everything else going on around us. I love working on ‘Thrones’ because of the scale of it and the atmosphere, but this felt more intimate.”
TESTAMENT OF YOUTH
WHAT: The new World War I drama directed by James Kent and starring Kit Harrington, based on the best-selling memoir by Vera Brittain
INFO: A Sony Pictures Classics release, 129 minutes, rated PG-13
WHEN/WHERE: Now playing in select theaters, and opening June 19 at East Hanover 12 in East Hanover, Reading Manville 12 in Manville, Lowes New Brunswick 18 in New Brunswick, AMC Garden State 16 in Paramus, Rockaway Plaza 16 in Rockaway, Crandord 5 in Cranford, Clairidge Sixplex in Montclair, Bow Tie Cinemas in Red Bank and Montgomery Cinemas 6 in Skillman