With Testament of Youth, our collective poppy-strewn dream imagery of a decimated generation of the gallant young men of WWI — and their noble horses too — might undergo a sea change. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), simultaneously poignant and powerful as Vera Brittain, the writer who fought her way into Oxford then chucked that to go to the front as a nurse, gives another indelible performance, her tragedies foretold by the forlorn-looking women at the train station sending off their jolly soldiers.
Brittain’s bestselling autobiographical novel was never part of the U.S. women’s-studies canon; it’s a surprise to see Brittain handily handling “our” issues of career, love, family. But add the war and a triumvirate of deaths: her great love, the dashing poet Roland (Kit Harington, spirited but tortured); a would-be suitor, Victor (Colin Morgan); and her brother Edward (Taron Egerton). If the camera didn’t adore Vikander, you’d have to look away from the tragic pileup.
There are relieving flashbacks — some too lingered-on — to a green-gold, elegiac time. Ingeniously, the standard war imagery of the close combat so devastating during the “war to end all wars” is not used; instead there’s a startling, surrealistically lit scene of a human-less battleground after the battle (cinematography by Rob Hardy). And the director, James Kent, cuts to trench-trapped soldiers — like photographs from Hell.
Vera’s search for her wounded brother is edited so that you feel her panic; her turn while helping a German soldier die is worthy of a young Lillian Gish, as emotions silently fly over her face. Without the epic sweep of a Doctor Zhivago, it’s an intellectual and emotional landscape Vera traverses: grief to survival and, finally, pacifism.