Testament of Youth
Testament of Youth, drama, rated PG-13, Regal DeVargas, 3.5 chiles
Testament of Youth begins with its heroine, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander), swimming (almost literally) against the tide. It is Nov. 11th, 1918, and the armistice ending World War I has just been announced. The streets erupt in joyful celebration, and as the crowd surges toward her, Vera struggles, grim-faced, in the opposite direction, buffeted by the ecstatic celebrants, until she escapes into the nearly deserted quiet of a church.
The takeaway from this moment is that whatever others may have to celebrate, for Vera there is no cause for rejoicing. From the stillness of the church, we flash back four years earlier to find out why.
We meet a high-spirited country girl, a young feminist clashing with her conventional parents (Emily Watson and Dominic West) over her determination to go to Oxford and become a writer, and to reject the bondage of marriage. Against the odds, she convinces her father to let her sit for the Oxford exams, and against even greater odds, she is accepted. But foreboding newspaper headlines about the assassination of an Austrian archduke warn us that the carefree summer days of youth are coming to an end.
When war is declared, Vera’s beloved brother Edward (Taron Egerton) wants to enlist, eager to taste the glory before it’s all over. Vera intercedes with their father for his permission. Their best friend Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan) and another Oxford friend of Edward’s, Roland Leighton (Kit Harington), follow suit. “How many generations get a chance to do something like this?” Roland asks.
By this time Vera has gotten over her aversion to marriage, and has fallen in love with Roland. And so she sees the men she loves go off to war. Soon, as the terrible reality of the slaughter sinks in, she leaves university and joins the nursing corps, first in England, and then later at the front.
Brittain’s war memoir, published 15 years after the end of the Great War, became a classic of anti-war literature. Director James Kent, a veteran of British TV making his feature debut, handles the familiar material with sensitivity and emotional power. There’s very little that’s groundbreaking here, but much that is heartbreaking. You will be reminded of other war movies like Gone With the Wind, with eager young men rushing off to fight with stars in their eyes and returning with bullets in their chests, leaving arms and legs and illusions behind on the battlefield, if they return at all. You’ll remember that Civil War epic again when Kent’s camera pulls up and away from a field hospital to give a long overhead shot of the wounded, dying, and dead laid out on litters in a muddy field.
Vikander, a new star who is suddenly everywhere, dominates the movie, and with her Audrey Hepburn-like beauty she makes us feel every moment of the deepening horrors of war.
Over there: Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington