I find Testament of Youth — the film version of Vera Brittain’s World War I memoir — a difficult film to write about. It’s a solid work of impeccable taste and judgment, and that may be its only stumbling block. It’s about an important topic, and about a war that was hard to understand 100 years ago and is all but lost on most people in the 21st century. What was once called The Great War no longer seems relevant and the whole era a little quaint. But the fact is it wasn’t quaint and it is relevant. It is also the war that fathered the greatest outpouring of anti-war films in history — from Abel Gance’s J’Accuse! (1919) to Rex Ingam’s The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1921) to King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) to Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926) to William Wellman’s Wings (1927) to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to Stuart Walker’s The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) and even to Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). Breaking into this select company is a task that Testament of Youth isn’t quite up to. And yet…and yet it is a worthy effort that takes a look at the war from the perspective of a young woman. Attention should be paid.
That change of perspective may not seem like an important one, but it is deeply significant in that — unlike every other film cited above — this is a story of the war told from the point of view of someone who wasn’t a soldier. In fact, it is the perspective of a young woman, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander), who — despite becoming a nurse — was always behind the lines and never saw the front firsthand. What she saw instead was the horrific aftermath of maimed bodies, septic wounds, amputations, disfigurement, pain, shortages of supplies and doctors — and filth everywhere. It is perhaps a more honest perspective for the viewer, too, since none of us were in the trenches either.
Though Testament of Youth carefully sets up Vera’s mindset at the end of the war in a detailed depiction of her distress in the midst of the otherwise cheering crowds on the day of the Armistice, the first section of the film takes us back to her pre-war days. At this point in her life, her interests lie mostly in a burning desire to go against society — not to learn the polite talents and get married, but to enter university and the world of higher education. These early scenes are depicted in glowing warm colors — distinctly different from the film’s chilly opening — and for a fairly long stretch, Testament of Youth becomes a relatively standard love story in which Vera falls in love with her brother Edward’s (Taron Egerton) friend Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington). The prospect — often charmingly handled — of a world of seemingly endless possibilities lasts just till the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the event that leads to the war. Possibilities are forever changed, and so is Vera and, for that matter so is the world.
On its simplest level, the film is the story of how Vera — as she loses friends, her lover and her earlier view of the world — became a voice for pacifism, how she became the person who would write Testament of Youth. The movie’s key scenes lie in her stint as a nurse working with wounded German soldiers. It is precisely because she can speak German (a fact carefully established earlier) that she comes to understand how the pain and the losses suffered by the German soldiers are no different from that of the English soldiers. But what lies beneath all this is the quiet outrage over the suffering, death and devastation — the meaningless waste of it all — in the service of a war that nobody really understood.
All this is it to the good, but what keeps Testament of Youth from joining the ranks of the greatest is that it’s just a little too decorous, a little too…well, Masterpiece Theatre to be quite as effective as it might have been. Perhaps this is because director James Kent comes from TV, but he also does enough things right that it seems unfair to lay all the blame on him. Some scenes — especially, Vera’s impassioned post-war speech — are very fine, so fine in fact that it almost overcomes the film’s occasional staidness. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including bloody and disturbing war related images.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.