The First World War was one of the greatest, most terrible conflicts and losses of life in the history of humanity, but curiously, it’s been relatively under-represented on screen, aside from a smattering of pictures like Oscar-winner “All Quiet On The Western Front,” Stanley Kubrick‘s “Paths Of Glory,” Peter Weir‘s “Gallipoli,” and most recently, Steven Spielberg‘s “War Horse.” Perhaps it’s because it was less of a just war than its bigger sequel, perhaps it’s that it was a particularly gruesome slog of mud and sacrifice, perhaps it was because America only entered the war three years in, but there’s no doubt that the conflict has been seen in the movies much less than WWII, or even Vietnam.
This year, however, marks one hundred years since the beginning of the war, and so it was inevitable that related movies would start to appear. The first out of the gates is “Testament Of Youth,” an adaptation of the seminal novel by Vera Brittain, first published in 1933, and which focuses less on the trenches and more on the effect of the immense loss of life on those left at home. With a cast mostly made up of rising, but still likely unfamiliar stars, and a first-time feature director at the helm, the film’s been mostly under the radar until it premiered at the BFI London Film Festival today, but though it might appear familiar on the surface, the film proves to be more than worth investigating.
The film opens in the spring of 1914, as Brittain (Alicia Vikander, the Swedish actress displaying a faultless Brit accent) swims with brother Edward (Taron Egerton, of the upcoming “Kingsman: The Secret Service“), and his friend Victor (Colin Morgan, best known for the BBC‘s “Merlin,” and looking alarmingly like he could be Benedict Cumberbatch‘s mini-me), who nurses an unrequited crush on the girl. The boys are finishing up school before heading to Oxford, and Vera longs to join them, but her parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson) see it as a waste of money and won’t let her go.
But the stubborn Brittain has her heart set on it, and doubly so when another of her brother’s friends, the charming and handsome Roland (Kit Harington, aka Jon Snow from “Game Of Thrones“) comes to visit. The pair are initially drawn to each other, and after a faltering start, begin courting properly/. But just as they’re set to start Oxford together, war breaks out, and Roland and Edward, feeling they have to do their duty, both enlist (Victor is initially turned down for poor eyesight, but eventually makes it to the front). Feeling helpless with the boys in her life facing danger, Brittain drops out of university to become as a nurse, but in the face of so much carnage, do her beau, her brother, and her admirer stand anything close to a chance?
Many of the beats and broader strokes the film deals with are familiar ones: the tearful train station goodbye, shell-shocked Tommys in hospital beds, the ominous boy on a bicycle carrying telegrams. From a distance, it all seems like it could be treading over old territory, even if that territory is always worth covering. But director James Kent (a TV veteran, with credits including “The White Queen” and ghost story “The Thirteenth Tale“), working from a screenplay by “Calendar Girls” writer Juliette Towhidi, has some tricks up his sleeve.
First,”Testament of Youth” is simply very well made. Though the budget’s clearly not enormous, the lack of combat scenes feels like a deliberate choice (keeping the focus carefully on Brittain, as is befitting an adaptation of a memoir), rather than a cost cutting measure, and Kent makes up for it elsewhere, including an arresting opening that sees a red-eyed Vera making her way through the raucous Armistice Day crowd. There’s an immediacy and sensuality to the way Kent (and excellent DP Rob Hardy) shoot, which makes the film feel closer to Wong Kar-Wai (or at least something like Jane Campion‘s similarly touch-focused “Bright Star“) than, say, “Atonement.” Max Richter, who’s been doing sterling work on “The Leftovers” recently, also contributes a score that’s stirring without being mushy.
Best of all is the cast. The older hands, including Miranda Richardson, Anna Chancellor, Joanna Scanlan, and Hayley Atwell, all make strong impressions in small roles, and while Watson and West both feel like slightly archetypal parental figures, both are given at least one powerful showcase. But, as the title suggests, it’s the young’uns who get the most to do, and they’re all very strong. We weren’t familiar with Morgan’s work before this, but he’s certainly one to watch based on this evidence, while those who find Harington a bit stiff and one-note on “Game Of Thrones” will find much more to like here. He’s particularly affecting in a scene when, on home-leave, he displays what we’d now think of as PTSD. The best of the boys is Egerton, whose part is unshowy, but displays a true warmth and vulnerability.
This is absolutely Vikander’s show, and no one who’s seen her in the likes of “Pure,” “Anna Karenina,” or “A Royal Affair” will be surprised to hear that she’s absolutely stellar here. She starts off with the brave choice of making Vera a somewhat harsh figure. At eighteen, she’s bull-headed and a little spoiled, and, cleverly, she’s introduced throwing a tantrum over having a piano bought for her by her parents, as if to sum up the pettiness of a generation’s concerns just before real tragedy landed on their doorsteps. But she’s always fascinating, and her gradual growing of a conscience, without ever abandoning her ideals (Brittain went on to be a notable 20th century pacifist) is moving, as are her moments of shock, grief, and joy. Never, for one second, is Vikander anything less than entirely truthful. The actress has no fewer than nine movies on the horizon, including this one, and we couldn’t be happier about that.
Where she, and the film, shine brightest are in the little moments. As we said, a century of war movies have prepared us for the big beats, but it’s the way the film captures beautifully, painfully specific moments that makes it distinctive. “Testament of Youth” is a film of snatched images and lingering memories. Vikander and Harington nearly, but not quite, stealing a kiss when their chaperone isn’t looking; a father retreating quietly in a train station to sob after sending his son to the front; a conversation in unsubtitled German with a dying soldier; the lurch in the stomach when you’re summoned away, fearing that bad news has arrived; and the desire to sink feet into the mud to remember of being on the front lines.
It’s these beautifully observed moments, captured gorgeously by Kent, and excellently performed by its cast, that make the film linger. They add up to a sort of mosaic of grief, loss and even anger at the absolute waste of an insane, inhuman conflict, and all without showing a single bullet fired. A century on, it’s a testament that’s still worth paying attention to. [B+]