I foolishly believed that there was a chance this would be a happy film.
I had no prior knowledge of the book this film is based on before watching the film, and I can’t say if I’m happy about that or if knowing anything at all might have saved me some distress. It’s a powerfully emotional film. What it lacks in innovative structure it makes up in the sheer talent of its cast, particularly its lead in Alicia Vikander, who delivers heavy hearts and tragedy as if it were second nature.
The James Kent-directed film follows Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) as she recalls the horrors of World War I, as those she loves are slowly pulled apart at the seams. It begins with her wish to get a place at Oxford and follows her through her exploits as she falls in love with the dashing Roland (Kit Harrington) and decides to become a nurse once her friend Victor (Colin Morgan) and brother Edward (Taron Egerton) are both sent to the front lines. Based on the best-selling autobiography by Brittain, the story turns a keen and critical eye toward the futility of war, the unnecessary loss of lives and innocence of that generation, love, and the idea of living with ghosts.
Again, foolish me who walked in expecting more Pride and Prejudice and less Atonement.
It’s a shame that the film seems to have walked the lines of typical BBC filmmaking, as the direction never does much to elevate the words and actions taking place onscreen. It’s a powerful story that takes a large amount of time in gaining momentum. Kent never tries to create a sense of urgency, and instead allows for his performers to shoulder the weight. It’s an oddly paced film, with much of the intrigue happening after the midway point. Roland and Vera’s relationship is beautifully played by Harrington and Vikander, but again, the momentum is slow and by the time we’re fully latched on, it’s taken too long to grab us completely. It makes sense if they’re trying to show the sweetness of the romance and the youthfulness–further highlighting the notion that the people who went off to fight in the war and nurse the bloody and broken soldiers were much too young; they’re children facing death head-on in the name of futile glory and pride. However, it takes too long to get to that point.
What’s much more interesting is Vera’s time spent as a nurse, oftentimes put in the position to help foreign soldiers which would help build her pacifist position, and it’s given the shortest amount of time to truly breathe. The film is lushly shot, made to look like old moving photographs, if only Kent could have made the images less shallow.
Luckily, the performers are uniformly strong, with supporting actors such as Dominic West and Emily Watson doing typical great work, but it’s the younger actors who this film lays its success on, and they all deliver. Harrington gets to play up the charm that’s typically stifled with the oftentimes morose Jon Snow in Game of Thrones and excels in a moment where we begin to see the signs of PTSD. Egerton was the surprise to me, having never seen him prior to this film, and when the film ended I was disappointed we hadn’t seen more of him. He has an effortless charisma that draws eyes to him whenever he’s onscreen.
Of course, as has been the case in many of the films Vikander has been in lately, this story is about her, and she shines. She is properly suited to have her breakout moment any time now, and with this movie and this year’s Ex Machina, she’s proven to be one of the most promising young actresses of her generation.
While the film suffers from being too by-the-books, its emotional center and message about the needless nature of suffering and war helps keep it afloat, with the talent on board cementing themselves as ones to watch. Vera’s story is fascinating, heart-wrenching, and difficult to watch, and it deserved an innovative voice behind it, as talented as the actress leading the charge.
Testament of Youth is out now.