‘Tes­ta­ment of Youth’

Ali­cia Vikan­der shines as the vi­brant Vera Brit­tain in this strong World War I drama.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC ken­neth.tu­ran@la­times.com

Based on Vera Brit­tain’s deeply felt WWI mem­oir, this ex­cep­tional ro­man­tic drama tracks the shat­ter­ing ef­fect the war has on a bright and spir­ited woman.

From first to last, “Tes­ta­ment of Youth” sweeps you away. Un­apolo­get­i­cally emo­tional and im­pec­ca­bly made in the clas­sic man­ner, it tells the kind of po­tent, many-sided story whose un­fore­seen com­plex­i­ties can come only cour­tesy of a life that lived them all.

Based on Vera Brit­tain’s deeply felt 1933 mem­oir of her World War I ex­pe­ri­ences, a mod­ern clas­sic that has never gone out of print, “Tes­ta­ment of Youth” is an at­tempt to write his­tory in terms of per­sonal life that is wrenched out of its au­thor’s very soul. Only that way, Brit­tain wrote, “could I res­cue some­thing that might be of value, some el­e­ment of truth and hope and use­ful­ness, from the smash­ing up of my own youth by the War.”

Brit­tain’s trade­mark fiery in­ten­sity and pas­sion­ate at­ti­tude have been trans­ferred in­tact to this film (finely adapted by screen­writer Juliette Towhidi and feel­ingly di­rected by James Kent) which seems to breathe with the writer’s in­ter­nal essence.

Key to that suc­cess is Swe­den’s Ali­cia Vikan­der, very much the actress of the mo­ment af­ter her charis­matic work as the enig­matic Ava in “Ex Machina.” She’s thrown her­self into this project un­re­servedly and pulled ev­ery­one else — in­clud­ing Kit Har­ing­ton, Taron Eger­ton and Colin Mor­gan, the ac­tors who play the men in her life — along with her.

While Vikan­der’s role in “Ex Machina” was a model of ar­ti­fice and re­straint, here she takes off in an op­po­site di­rec­tion, a more high-spir­ited if equally determined young woman, an im­petu­ous spit­fire who em­braces life with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

Yet when we first en­counter Brit­tain, she is in a daze, her haunted face look­ing straight ahead and fill­ing the screen. It is Nov. 11, 1918, Ar­mistice Day, and the Lon­don street she’s on is erupt­ing in un­re­strained ju­bi­la­tion. The end of the first world war, how­ever, has come too late for this young woman, has left her, she fears, with no rea­son to live.

“Tes­ta­ment of Youth” then f lashes back to 1914, only four years past but eons ago in terms of who Brit­tain was and how she thought her life would pro­ceed.

The set­ting is Der­byshire, where Brit­tain, her adored younger brother Ed­ward (Eger­ton) and his Ox- ford friend Vic­tor (Mor­gan), are swim­ming in a lake near the Brit­tain fam­ily home. Young, hand­some, th­ese in­di­vid­u­als in the full blush of youth have no idea how frag­ile their world is, no no­tion that they are about to be­come a lost gen­er­a­tion.

Direc­tor Kent, a Bri­tish TV vet­eran mak­ing his first the­atri­cal fea­ture, has not only seen to it that the film’s pe­riod re-cre­ation is done with great care, he’s had spe­cific ideas of how he wanted “Tes­ta­ment” to be shot.

Work­ing with ex­pe­ri­enced cine­matog­ra­pher Rob Hardy (who shot “Ex Machina” as well as “The In­vis­i­ble Woman” and part of the “Red Rid­ing” tril­ogy), West has gone for an in­ti­mate ap­proach that im­merses us in the story with Brit­tain, en­cour­ag­ing us to go through what she is go­ing through at the mo­ment it’s hap­pen­ing.

The young woman’s spirit is vis­i­ble al­most im­me­di­ately, as she clashes with her par­ents (canny vet­er­ans Emily Wat­son and Do­minic West) over her dream of be­ing a rare fe­male stu­dent at Ox­ford’s Somerville Col­lege, a sit­u­a­tion her par­ents are op­posed to be­cause it might make her a po­ten­tially un- mar­riage­able blue­stock­ing.

No sooner, how­ever, does Brit­tain in­sist she never wants to marry any­one than an­other of her brother’s Ox­ford friends, hand­some, sen­si­tive Roland Leighton (Har­ing­ton, Jon Snow in “Game of Thrones”) walks in the door. The con­nec­tion be­tween them is clear, but this is not go­ing to be easy.

As the ker­fuff le about Brit­tain ap­ply­ing to Ox­ford un­der­lines, women’s lives were unimag­in­ably con­strained only 100 years ago. As a young woman, Brit­tain needs to be chap­er­oned when she’s out in public, es­pe­cially when a po­ten­tial suitor like Leighton ap­pears. Dif­fi­cult as that lim­i­ta­tion was for the cou­ple, it leads to ex­tremely ro­man­tic cinema, as even the most ca­sual join­ing of fin­gers be­comes elec­tric with furtive pas­sion.

In the back­ground of all of this, vis­i­ble in ran­dom news­pa­per head­lines, is the in­ex­orable buildup to world war. Sud­denly ev­ery­one’s lives get very se­ri­ous very fast, and one by one all the young men in Brit­tain’s life, drawn by an un­think­ing com­bi­na­tion of pa­tri­o­tism and naiveté, vol­un­teer for what they think will be a few months of mil­i­tary ser­vice.

The re­al­ity of war, how­ever, proved to be cat­a­stroph­i­cally dif­fer­ent, and Brit­tain her­self, un­able to con­cen­trate on any­thing else in her life, vol­un­teers to be a nurse. She even­tu­ally ends up at Eta­ples, a hos­pi­tal in France close to the front lines, where the mon­strous ex­tent of the car­nage she sees is al­most too much to bear.

One of Brit­tain’s goals in writ­ing “Tes­ta­ment of Youth” was to show, “with­out any po­lite dis­guise, the agony of war to the in­di­vid­ual, and the de­struc­tive­ness to the hu­man race.” And though she ended the con­flict “with my deep­est emo­tions par­a­lyzed if not dead,” her life, as it turns out, was far from over.

What makes Vera Brit­tain’s story so ex­cep­tional is the f luid way all th­ese el­e­ments in her life, the pas­sion­ate fem­i­nism, the love story, the war years and what they led to, nat­u­rally f low to­gether. The “Tes­ta­ment of Youth” we see is an ex­cep­tional ro­mance, but it is a ro­mance with a con­sid­er­able amount on its mind, a ro­mance with lessons for our time as much as for hers.

Lau­rie Sparham Sony Pic­tures Clas­sics

ALI­CIA VIKAN­DER

and Kit Har­ing­ton in “Tes­ta­ment of Youth.”

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