'Testament of Youth'
Vera Brittain’s autobiography ‘Testament of Youth’ is such a painfully heartfelt portrayal of the horrors of war that the book is too important to ever go out of print. It’s a truly exemplary work, one that was inevitably bound to get the handsome, British prestige picture treatment. That’s exactly what we have here. While the resulting movie is undeniably well made, it never quite manages to be anything more than a well-meaning adaptation of a superior work.
Equaling the source was likely impossible. Perhaps this is the best that could be hoped for.
Alicia Vikander (‘Ex Machina’) stars as Vera. She opens the film as a headstrong and independent woman determined to go to Oxford despite her parents’ fears that the pointlessly expensive task will do little more than delay her getting a husband – or even worse, prevent her from getting one all together. (The horror!) As soon as Vera declares that she’ll never have a husband, her natural love interest appears in Roland (Kit Harington from ‘Game of Thrones’), a handsome friend of her brother who shares her passion for writing.
During some frolicking sequences, a little burgeoning love blooms. Unfortunately, before it can flower, World War I breaks out and Roland must head out to the trenches. Though she defies the odds and ends up in Oxford, Vera soon drops out and abandons her dreams to become a nurse serving the legions of injured men returning from war. Through this station and the letters and visits from her brother and Roland, Vera experiences one innocence-crushing tragedy after another. Eventually, she joins the front lines in Germany, up to her eyeballs in filth and dripping with blood. It’s not a pretty story, but it certainly covers its central theme thoroughly.
The film adaptation is mounted in the slickly professional manner that one would expect from a veteran BBC director – in this case, James Kent making his feature debut. Kent decided to shoot in handheld Cinemascope, which allows for a mix of epic images and intimately captured moments. It’s a highly calculated choice, and that’s true of every aspect of the movie. It’s not a poorly made film by any stretch of the imagination. Emotions run high, radical tonal shifts pull the audience through the requisite roller coaster of emotions, performances are heartfelt, glimpses of the battlefield are filthy, and idyllic memories are coated in postcard soft focus to ensure the concept of joyful happiness is communicated.
The trouble is that the movie takes no real risks with the material. It merely plays out in the ways it must, providing a certain level of distance from the personal subject matter that prevents it from connecting too deeply. It’s quite moving and well made, just a little antiseptic. A few ham-fisted directorial choices – like newspaper headlines announcing historical events and obvious crane shots of piles of corpses – occasionally tip the movie into the realm of prestige cheese, but thankfully Kent is tasteful enough most of the time to prevent that from becoming a major issue.
The director’s wisest choice was the most important one: casting the immensely talented Alicia Vikander as Vera. Despite being a Swede mimicking a British accent, Vikander digs deeply into embodying the role. She has the tough task of portraying a cold woman in a time where emotions could not be openly expressed, yet always manages to express her character’s complex emotions behind a stone face struggling to conceal them. No matter what goes wrong around her, Vikander is always perfectly on-point and often carries the entire film on her shoulders.
The best performances around her also come from women, specifically Emily Watson as Vera’s heartbreakingly sheltered mother and Miranda Richardson delivering a coldhearted Oxford snob with charismatic ease. The men don’t come off nearly as well (in a somewhat refreshing change from the norm). They’re mostly stuck in two-dimensional roles that exist only to serve and support Vera’s journey.
Thanks to incomparable source material and an extraordinary central performance, ‘Testament of Youth’ exceeds almost in spite of itself. Sure, it’s a little too dully mounted and often sacrifices emotional depth in favor of a manageable running time, but the key beats do register. It’s worth watching for Vikander alone. The peaks of the film manage to at least fleetingly capture the power of the original book. The film is not destined to become a contemporary classic, but it’s at least an adaptation of ‘Testament of Youth’ worth viewing for those curious to see it. That’s probably not the level of ambition that the filmmakers had in mind when they set out to make the project, but it’ll do.