A review of the film adaptation of Vera Brittain’s best-selling memoir, which recounts her experiences as a student and then nurse in WWI-era England. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
“Testament of Youth,” a British drama set during the first world war, is a beautifully composed film, so much so that you wonder, at first, if it might be too pretty for its subject. And then, the real horror of the war sets in, and no amount of sun-dappled light can distract from the film’s message: So many young people, filled with promise and hope and ideals, headed off to war; so few returned.
Vera Brittain’s best-selling memoir, on which the film is based (though a few key events have been somewhat fictionalized), was published in 1933; in it, Brittain wrote of her journey from well-brought-up suburban daughter to early feminist to World War I nurse (both in London and on the front) to pacifist. She was 21 when war broke out in 1914, and attending Oxford; one of the few women of her generation to do so. Her losses during the war were terrible — friends, lovers, family members. “All of us,” says a friend of Vera’s in the film, after the war, “are surrounded by ghosts.”
In its first half, James Kent’s film revels in Vera’s youthful idealism; it’s a portrait of a writer as a young woman. Vera (Alicia Vikander) is all determination: to write; to read; to go to Oxford; to reject conformity (“I don’t want a husband!” she rages to her conventional parents); to find love with Roland (Kit Harington), a friend of her brother Edward (Taron Egerton). And it’s all pretty as can be: The plush house dangles in some delicious halfway place between Howard’s End and Downton Abbey, the costumes are a pastel dream, the goodbye to Roland at a train station the stuff of romantic fairy tales. But then the story changes, and those pretty colors fade into stark pictures of hospitals, injury, mud, death.
Movie Review ★★★½
‘Testament of Youth,’ with Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Emily Watson, Hayley Atwell, Colin Morgan. Directed by James Kent, from a screenplay by Juliette Towhidi, based on the memoir by Vera Brittain. 129 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including bloody and disturbing war-related images. Several theaters.
Though the movie at times feels oddly unfinished (you wonder what Miranda Richardson, in a tiny role as an Oxford professor, is there for), it’s artful and moving. And its images stay with you: a clump of women on a train platform, waving goodbye; a family tearfully burying a military uniform, with no body sent home; the dreaded sight of a telegraph boy on his bicycle, bringing what can only be bad news; a young woman on a hotel telephone, receiving word of tragedy, who suddenly focuses on the Christmas flowers in the lobby, as if beauty could somehow snatch this news away. Memory is all that’s left for Vera; that, and her pen.
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