Published Jun 19, 2015Testament of Youth, James Kent's adaptation of (most of) Vera Brittain's memoir of the same name, is quite possibly the most aptly titled movie of the year. Though it takes place in the early 1900s, spanning the timeframe of WWI, and the plot points and gender roles are (sort of) specific to that time, there is a timelessness about the ideas and feelings presented. This is a coming-of-age story if there ever was one, using some of the harshest wartime environments that humankind has offered to examine why we fight, what it means to lose our ideals and what it means to push forward in the face of insurmountable heartache and existential grief.
Much like the source text, Youth starts prior to WWI. Vera (Alicia Vikander), as a young woman, is headstrong and determined. She wants to go to Oxford. Her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) is bound for it, as is his friend Victor (Colin Morgan), but Vera's father (Dominic West) has seemingly more practical ideas in mind: in lieu of schooling, he buys his daughter a piano to aid in her finding a suitor, something that Victor is all too happy to step up as.
Wisely, Kent encapsulates this pre-war storyline with a familiar cadence and trajectory. Just as Vera wears down her father enough to get a crack at Oxford, Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington) comes out of nowhere and challenges Vera's assertion that men aren't a priority for her. Like her, he is well read and thoughtful, presenting Vera with an unexpected romance and inadvertently creating a love triangle that the sweeping cinematography, emotional blowouts and pointed speeches could easily sustain as a feature narrative on their own. But, out of nowhere, the war bubbles up and, in adhering to social expectation, Roland signs up to fight, as does Edward. Vera even fights with her father for Edward's right to go to battle, which is one of the initial ways that Testament of Youth sets up its devastating division between the naivety of youth and the world-wearied soberness that manifests on the other end.
Beyond Kent's expert demonstration of restraint, presenting each tragedy and hardship as it unfolds without milking or manipulating emotions unnecessarily, one of the main reasons Youth is so effective is the central performance from Alicia Vikander. Throughout the runtime, Vikander has to age and mature several years; her basic ideology has to change and we have to believe it. Smartly, Vikander doesn't play young Vera as someone lacking in life experience. She doesn't dumb down the younger self in preparation for what is to come; she embodies the passion, ideals and determination of someone certain they have life figured out. It's why her gradual shift, the visible weight on her shoulders while working as a nurse in the war and the haunted look in her eyes while things keep getting worse is so heartbreaking; we watch her spirit and her passion get crushed.
But Testament of Youth isn't just about how harsh the world can be; it's also a film that asks why it has to be this way. Though injuries are presented onscreen — Vera is a nurse, after all — the actual wartime battle is left on the field. There's no stylization or glamourizing battle; there's just the gory, upsetting aftermath of it all, which the women are left to clean up.
Since the perspective here is Vera's, the experience is that of repetition. Whether treating Germans or those on her own side, Vera sees only boys with families and dreams lying in makeshift beds waiting to die. The question becomes, "What do we gain from fighting?" And tactfully, this question is asked without disrespecting the deep debt we all owe to the many people that gave their lives for everyone left behind.
Beyond the political questions and feminist ideologue — all of which is handled quite tastefully and intelligently — the real strength of this deeply moving epic is how universal the basic underlying emotions are. Vera's shift from youth to adult is convincing, devastating and ultimately inspiring, a trajectory that often mirrors that of real life. The process of maturity is documented well here, and in a way that's difficult not to identify with. It's rare that a film manages to work on as many levels as Testament of Youth does.