The testament in “Testament of Youth” might be intended to seem ambiguous at first glance — but the right interpretation is expertly revealed in this adaptation of the famous war memoir by Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander).
A young Oxford applicant at the start of World War I, Vera watches her love Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington from “Game of Thrones’”), her brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), and their friend Victor (Colin Morgan) all march off to the front, one after the other, from 1914 to 1918. This “testament” to youth is more a witness than a salute.
What makes it such an impressive, powerful and unusual war film is its focus on those left behind. Unlike so many war movies, it remains mostly on the home front. From Vera’s perspective, it begins with her acceptance to Oxford University, a hard-won accomplishment for a woman of that period, and an accomplishment that slips, tragically unaware, into the disruptive mechanisms of the war, emblematic of so many hopes, dreams and lives.
The war will stamp out the gentle naiveté and grace of the fading Edwardian era, but we still see its picturesque remnants in young Vera and her circle. Ladies’ hats are silk, their dresses embroidered with lace. Father (Dominic West) grumbles when Vera demands college over piano lessons. A prim aunt (Joanna Scanlan) chaperones young lovers when they go to a play.
Amid these charming period details director James Kent — whose long career mostly has been in television — adroitly lets his camera linger on a discarded newspaper, bearing a headline about the killing of an Austro-Hungarian archduke. The point: Few among the Brittains, or the British, can imagine what’s to come, no matter how sensitive or intelligent they may be. In this regard, Vera’s characterization is expertly subtle, and quite moving.
Initially she’s of two conflicting minds when war breaks out. She implores her reluctant father to relent and let her brother join up and “become a man,” but balks when Roland finds a way to hasten his deployment to the front. Sure, enlisting is OK, she argues, her face roiling with emotion, but why rush into battle?
Such logical inconsistency demonstrates the reveries and realities of war that aligned themselves like opposing armies in the thoughts of Vera and so many of her contemporaries. Metaphorical bombs rain down one sunny day at Oxford when she discovers the morning paper filled, page after page, row upon row, with names of the fallen. Vera’s mind is soon as shelled as the front, overcome with anxiety about Roland.
Unable to concentrate on her studies, she leaves school over the objection of her professor (Miranda Richardson) to join the war as a nurse. Here the film, while retaining many of its qualities, loses some of the vigor of individuality that hurls the viewer through earlier scenes. Perhaps Vera should have listened to her professor, but we don’t really know how she feels, beyond worried. On the heels of her wonderful performance as the cold android in “Ex Machina,” Vikander is as effectively human in this film. But her activities as a nurse are presented merely as matters of fact: grim and eye-opening, but not very revealing about her character. Racing from one sick bed to another, Vera simply keeps a stiff upper lip, does her duty and yearns to see Roland again.
The couple’s reunion while he’s on leave brings the film back to life and to its better points. Roland, too, is torn, between duty and the growing realization that anyone who thinks war is glorious has been deceived, by not only society but also themselves.
The war years move quickly from there, one bit of bad news after another. On the one hand, “Testament of Youth” might be accused of losing sight of the scope and breadth of the war while focusing on a few individuals (it does have to pack an entire memoir into a two-hour movie). But it’s also arguable that Vera and her immediate circle provide an opportunity to make an important argument. Like those lost at the front, war slips out of a society’s grip very quickly. No other film more sorrowfully, or more beautifully testifies to the dangerous truth about this war and all the subsequent conflicts it helped create, how an entire generation dutifully threw itself into a trap. (PG-13) 129 min. S