How keenly and eagerly do wars begin,
When winners and losers have yet to be picked,
Before its true horror and hardship set in
And man is reminded how great is its sin!
The world returns ever, a careless addict,
To battle and blood, as the wise can predict.
Each new generation discovers firsthand
The truth only mastered when foolishness dies.
It cannot be scheduled; it cannot be planned;
It comes only when the naïve understand
That war is a futile and grave exercise.
Then do the innocent fools become wise.
MPAA rating: PG-13
Alicia Vikander broke onto most people’s radars with 2015’s Ex Machina and her Oscar-winning role in The Danish Girl, but Testament of Youth not long before them should not be forgotten. Based on the same-titled World War I memoir by Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth features the kind of lead performance that makes one wonder why it didn’t get more awards attention. As Brittain herself, Vikander plays an early feminist whose academic dreams are dashed by the onset of war and its unforeseen tragedies.
I’d never heard of Vera Brittain or her apparently famous memoir before this movie, but that’s why I love well-done adaptations that introduce me to new and worthwhile stories. Early on, Brittain is a relatively carefree girl whose greatest challenge is convincing her father to let her go to Oxford. Thanks to the intervention of her brother Edward (Taron Edgerton in one of his first roles) and a sympathetic professor (Anna Chancellor), she is able to attend her dream school, right as she’s also finding love with one of Edward’s friends, Roland (Kit Harington of Game of Thrones fame). Before long, though, the Great War begins, and when all her male friends enlist, Vera’s priorities shift as well, compelling her to join the war effort as a nurse, first on the home front and later in France.
Testament of Youth may seem like your typical beautifully mounted British period piece, and if you don’t like beautifully mounted British period pieces, you might find it boring. Yet the cinematography is sumptuous and the acting of everyone involved stellar, with Vikander in particular embodying the wartime transformation of the nation as she develops from a naïve schoolgirl who advocates her brother joining the military to a war-weary mourner reeling from all that was lost. There are times when it seems to be treading familiar ground, such as a shot lifted straight from Gone with the Wind, but a scene where Vera declares to a vengeful crowd the best way to respond to the defeated Germans is especially powerful. While the end could have been depressing as heck, there are glimmers of hope as she discovers how to move beyond misfortune.
As far as style, the closest thing I can compare Testament of Youth to is the John Keats biopic Bright Star, which also imbues a tragic true romance with a poignant beauty and literary passion. The anti-war themes center on loss and empathy, which is strongly endorsed through Brittain’s nurse experiences, as when she cares for both British and German soldiers as if they were her own brother or fiancé. Whether you’ve heard of it or not, Testament of Youth is a prime choice the next time you’re in the mood for a beautifully mounted British period piece.
Best line: (Vera’s college partner Winifred Holtby) “All of us are surrounded by ghosts. Now we need to learn how to live with them.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2018 S.G. Liput
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