Coinciding with the centennial commemorations of World War I, “Testament of Youth” dramatizes English author Vera Brittain’s popular memoir for the big screen. Respectability sometimes eclipses passion in this fact-based account of love, loss and pacifism. But its vibrant lead performance and skillfully crafted story make it a moving personal journey.
Director James Kent, working from a screenplay by Juliette Towhidi, has delivered a modestly budgeted, narratively ambitious story of Brittain’s four-year transformation from carefree English girl to frontline nurse to powerful antiwar voice. It opens in 1918, on Armistice Day. While others celebrate in the streets, Vera (Alicia Vikander) enters a church to remember the people she’s lost.
A flashback to her life in 1914 reveals a 20ish Vera frolicking at a lake with her brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), and friend Victor (Colin Morgan). She soon finds love with Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington), Edward’s confident, poetry-writing friend.
The young men are Oxford-bound, but Vera receives a piano instead of tuition money from her financially comfortable parents (Dominic West, Emily Watson). Wanting to be a writer, not somebody’s wife, she studies, and Oxford accepts her.
But then Britain goes to war. Edward, Roland and Victor, believing the conflict will be finished by Christmas, eagerly sign up.
As the picture darkens, Vera abandons school and becomes a nurse. The scene is muddy, bloody and hellish on the front lines. Everybody loses loved ones.
Vera winds up caring for wounded “dirty Huns.” An encounter with a dying German soldier inspires her to realize the humanity in all people.
True, the movie is a love-during-wartime drama with a “Masterpiece Theatre” tone (Brittain’s memoir was dramatized by the TV series in the 1970s). Kent does nothing particularly original with the material.
A tearful train-station good-bye and juxtapositions of bucolic landscapes with wartime carnage are hardly novel. Scenes of young men enlisting to fight a war whose brutality they can’t remotely fathom, along with a wide-focus view, shot from above, of dying soldiers, bring “Gone With the Wind” to mind. While Vikander and Harrington share chemistry, the love story (perhaps because the 1918 setting means the characters meet only with a chaperone present) generates little heat.
Still, the film is a coming-of-age story with sweep and substance and a worthy consideration of one of the deadliest conflicts ever.
Vikander, who is Swedish, is a vibrant heroine and believable as an English girl with a force of conscience, intelligence and purpose.
In one of several instances of Kent saving his best material for last, Vera discovers her calling at a rally dripping with anti-German sentiment, and she issues a compelling plea for judging the German soldiers humanely. (The moment almost has viewers wishing for a sequel.)
The supporting cast, too, shines, although its more venerable members, including Miranda Richardson (playing Vera’s Oxford tutor), are frustratingly underused.
Testament of Youth
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan
Written by: Juliette Towhidi
Directed by: James Kent
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes