“Testament of Youth” is a powerful movie about war.
You won’t think so at first. But I’d strongly advise patience, because the movie that this film becomes is, ultimately, very different and much more powerful than the movie it starts out to be.
It’s based on Vera Brittain’s best-selling memoir of the same name, which was first published in 1933 and has become something of a classic tale of women in war, the homefront in wartime and, most importantly, the lives of nurses at the front.
I understand completely those who are, to any degree at all, put off by the first half hour of “Testament of Youth,” as we watch young Vera Brittain struggle mightily against her father to be able to go to Oxford just like her brother.
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This is by no means a trivial tale, but as we’re watching it in this film, it all seems so very much like some “Masterpiece Theater” tale-telling about the strained civility that fills up so much of the British telly. To those of us who have long since consigned “Masterpiece Theater” offerings to the rear-most rows of our viewing affections, this does not augur well.
When I tell you that the idylls of British upper middle class life in the 20th century’s early years are very much those we’re used to on “Masterpiece Theater,” you should know that the director of this film is James Kent, a solid British TV sort.
Be aware, though: Another movie entirely is on the way. A lacerating one.
It isn’t, by any means, that the lives of young men are more important than the thwarted potential of deprived young women who can’t receive the same education as their brothers. It’s just that the afflictions on wartime soldiers are a horror that, frankly, none of us can imagine without the help of books, movies and reportage in all media.
It is what we’re watching as Alicia Vikander, playing Vera, gives up the hard-won berth at Oxford for which she’d fought so hard to deal with those she knows who have gone off to become British soldiers in what would eventually become World War I. They include her brother and her fiance, a poet.
Vera begins as a young woman rebelling against her family for buying an expensive new piano. “That piano could have paid for a whole year at Oxford,” she fumes, when her parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson) expect her to take her place at the keyboard as part of the genteel upper middle class life expected of her.
She is soon a young woman dealing with young men literally broken and torn apart by war — individually at first and then, at the front, huge groups of them overspilling the available space for them — the ones who have to be allocated, through triage, to those with the least chance of survival.
And therefore sacrificed as a matter of routine protocol.
It is there that she finds her own brother, virtually consigned to the hopeless so that the medical staff can treat those with better odds.
This is powerful film-making. It’s the story of a life that will never stop being relevant.
Vikander is having an exceptional film year (see “Ex Machina,” one of the year’s best by far) and we’ll be seeing more of her for the next couple of years.
There is, to be sure, an entire subtle movie to be made out of the one that this seems to be at the beginning, about the fight of women to be accorded the same education as men. (Think of what Merchant Ivory and their writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala might have done with it.) I remember that battle, somewhat incredibly, fought by young women in my own mid-century youth.
This movie has another more harrowing tale to tell — about war and what it does to bodies and souls that could never have imagined what it brings.
One minute young men are playing rugby. A few minutes later, they’re not whole anymore. They’re crushed spiritually and wheeled around in chairs.
The tragedy is that it’s a story that never gets old. “Testament of Youth” eventually tells it very well.
TESTAMENT OF YOUTH
4 out of five stars
Rating: 3 1/2 out of five stars.
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Emily Watson, Kit Harington, Colin Morgan, Miranda Richardson.
Director: James Kent.
Running time: 2:09.
Rated: PG-13; abundant wartime imagery including many bloody war wounds.