Alicia Vikander finds the fire-hardened spirit of noted pacifist Vera Brittain in a sentimental take on Testament of Youth, the bestselling classic about the endless tragedy of war
Testament of Youth
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson
Directed by: James Kent
Running time: 129 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
Coming-of-age at the turn of the 20th century, Vera Brittain was part of a generation that lost its innocence in tandem with the start of the Great War, inevitably bringing an epic scale to events and emotions that could otherwise feel so natural and expected, you’d consider them banal.
The standard romantic ups and downs of a young courtship suddenly look like waves in a Turner seascape when war is at hand and imminent death in a muddy trench is a real possibility, so we have to give James Kent’s somewhat breathless adaptation of Brittain’s bestselling memoir some slack.
We have to see things through the eyes of a young woman who has known only the near-idyllic life of rural England, and suddenly, isn’t just forced to witness one human atrocity after another, she’s forced to endure the grief of personal loss.
Though originally slated to star Saoirse Ronan, Kent found the right pair of irises in Alicia Vikander, the Swedish actress most recently seen in Ex Machina. Playing the role of Vera, Vikander has an easy time pulling us to her chest in the opening frames, which Kent composes like a post-Raphaelite dream.
We watch Vera, her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his friend Victor (Colin Morgan) modestly remove their clothes and slip into a hidden pond where they frolic in their white cotton undergarments.
They are the very image of innocence: soft pale flesh surrounded by deep green foliage, human vulnerability surrendering to Mother Nature’s embrace.
The only real concern is Vera’s huffiness over her father’s purchase of a piano. She wanted to attend Oxford, but because the patriarch spent the equivalent of tuition on a set of ivories, she’s going to be stuck at home making doilies and decorating pillows with needlepoint.
Vera wants a vital, relevant life, so when her brother argues her case for an education to her father, she repays the favour in kind: She persuades her father to let Edward go to war, so he can feel like a man among his peers.
It’s a moment she will live to regret, but it’s just one of many that form the broken spine of this literary classic that doesn’t just dig into the history and specifics of the First World War, it brings a decidedly female perspective to the carnage.
Through Vikander’s compassionate eyes, we begin to see and feel the distance travelled emotionally. We watch Vera go from a mercurial young woman to a rather stoic field nurse in the space of two hours, and while that’s not a lot of ground to cover in a movie, it’s still a challenging voyage to pull off with conviction, and without cliché.
Because so much of what Brittain wrote is shaped by her own personality, Kent had to get us inside Vera’s head. He could have used voice-over, but chooses scene work instead, creating character interactions designed to chisel out certain revelations.
The most important one – and the one Brittain would refer to frequently in later rallies – was holding the hand of German soldier as he succumbed to his wounds. Brittain spoke fluent German, and provided comfort to the dying man in his last moments as he cried out for his mother.
She was transformed by the experience because it all seemed so surreal, and so senseless.
Director Kent had to make this moment matter, but whether it’s a case of war-imagery ennui or just some lackluster shots, it doesn’t carry the urgency or the pathos required to really pivot the film.
Brittain became an outspoken pacifist after the war and tirelessly lobbied for changes, and while Kent conveys a sense of tragedy, and Vikander commands the camera’s gaze with her own fiery strength, the essence of Vera Brittain fails to register as anything more than quiet disdain.
Kent seems to mistake Brittain’s metaphysical substance for girlish sentimentality, and if this movie had starred someone like Keira Knightley in the lead, it might have been unwatchable.
Fortunately, Vikander is coupled with heavyweights Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) and Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service), which means the scenes are able to overcome a sense of contrivance and connect at a basic level.
The willful passion of Brittain’s prose and her moral disgust at armed conflict come across and fill out the canvas, but the emotional purity of her perspective and the heartbreak that defines human suffering aren’t fully rendered – leaving this war story wrestling with some ghosts of its own.