Based on English writer Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir about her experiences during World War I, “Testament of Youth” is a handsomely presented, if sometimes a bit restrained story of one woman’s voyage into pacifism.
Alicia “Ex Machina” Vikander stars as Brittain, a tenacious young woman who battles against her father’s (Dominic West) wishes and the conventions of the day to take the Oxford University entrance exam. Her schooling is interrupted when WWI breaks out and brother Edward (Taron “Kingsman: The Secret Service” Egerton), her fiancé Roland Leighton (Kit “Game of Thrones “ Harington) and friends Victor (Colin Morgan) and Geoffrey (Jonathan Bailey) are sent to fight at the front lines. With her friends at risk Vera opts to join them, leaving school to enrol as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Tending to both German and English soldiers in London, Malta and France she learns first hand about personal loss, human suffering and the futility of war.
“Testament of Youth” offers up a different, parallel view to combat, than the usual war film. Told from the point of view of a battle nurse, it is different but no less effecting as a story of female strength. Vikander is the movie’s soul and strength, handing in a performance that is both strong willed and remarkably nimble. When Vera pretends to be the German girlfriend of a dying soldier, the performance transcends the “Downton Abbey” vibe of the production. Moments like these are almost an antidote to the melodrama that masquerades as actual emotion in other scenes. Almost but not quite.
The supporting performances work well enough, although other than Vera the emotional connection necessary for the anti-war message to be truly effective is missing. Large scale shots of dead and dying men in battle and hospitals visualize the sentiment but a real, personal connection with the characters would have been more fitting for a story about a woman so absolutely changed by the war and her experiences.
“Testament of Youth” is based on a true and well-documented story but a dose or three of melodrama—does she really have to get such bad news on her wedding day?—blunts the power of the story.