Joy before the war
Alicia Vikander has been on the verge of breaking out big (Oscar-nominated A Royal Affair
, the summer’s sleeper hit Ex Machina, second fiddle to Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina) since I met her three years ago at the Hamptons International Film Festival
as one of ten stars to watch. Now, here she is: a starlet in demand. The Swedish ballerina turned actress will be the female lead in Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and, allegedly, the next Bourne installment. But, right before she has her big budget breakout, the lithe and serious Vikander stars in this gossamer-and-gritty WW1 period drama, Testament of Youth.
Vikander (in a role originally intended for Saoirse Ronan) is glorious as Vera Brittain (1893-1970), the Yorkshire woman who wrote the titular memoir. A middle-class self-tutored scholar, Brittain gets her dream of attending Oxford only to be sideswiped by WW1. That external conflict costs her nearly everything she holds dear, including her fiancé, her younger brother and her sense of certainty in an orderly nation
Also enriching the movie is that Vikander’s Brittain strolls in peachy pressed linen beside two stunning young actors on parallel paths to stardom. Kit Harington (John Snow of Game of Thrones at his peak in that plotline) plays Brittain’s fiancé Roland Leighton. Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service) charms as Vera’s devoted younger brother Edward. It goes on and on, cast-wise, with Emily Watson and Dominic West as Vera’s parents, and Anna Chancellor as Leighton’s accomplished mother.
From the very beginning, with a disturbing flash-forward on Armistice Day when an emotionally shattered Brittain recoils from her fellow citizens’ spontaneous celebration of the war’s end, we know that her journey will not end well. But Director James Kent, making his feature debut following years directing documentaries and British TV (he even notched a Poirot), flashes back to a bucolic pre-war Yorkshire with that gilded BBC sheen, to which public television viewers have become addicted. But, in Kent’s skilled hands, that early twentieth-century shire is a beautiful egg rolling on a precipice – the drama is watching the status quo cracked and flattened.
Testament of Youth has classic scope with a wink at David Lean, and a very modern character presentation. Just when you become in thrall with the glory of the costumes – that top-stitching, that paisley shawl – and the gorgeous knickknacks neatly stowed in niches beneath gilded peacock color wall paper, everything changes.
The jolly young men, as energetic as Labrador retrievers, idealistic in their view of war and the country they love and defend, step off war’s curb into Dante’s hell. They cross the channel and discover that all the manners they have been taught, the poetry memorized, the rugby matches, is useless in a bloody, muddy bunker a grenade’s throw from the enemy. (Few have treated The Great War with more ridiculous horror and matching ridiculous humor as Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie in Black Adder.) This trench warfare was in no way sporting, and young men in full flower lost the match on both sides.
At the war story’s center is Vera Brittan, whose memoir of the same name is well-known across the pond. BBC2 adapted it into a 1979 miniseries. In Director Kent’s hands, from a script by Juliette Towhidi (“Calendar Girls”) this is tragedy without melodrama. Testament of Youth is the story of one passionately intellectual, headstrong young woman who believed her fight was to get educated as a scholar and not simply trained in the arts of being a good wife.
Brittain’s true awakening was not intellectual but emotional as, only a few years later, she realizes that she has accomplished her dream – she is an Oxford scholar — after a darkly transformative stint as a battlefield nurse in France. And, yet, her fiance, her beloved brother and a generation of England’s finest have not survived to celebrate and share in her success. Brittain has achieved social change in her own life – a change for which we women still struggle – and, yet, in military actions beyond her control, started by an assassination in a distant land, she has also lost much of what she truly loved and underappreciated. It becomes Brittain’s responsibility as a newly educated woman in a society where men are now sparse and often damaged to speak for the fallen and use her talents to bear witness. The result is her iconic, and deeply moving, Testament of Youth.