I had sort of relegated Testament of Youth to “last ditch” territory. You know, where you’re hard up for a film to see, and you’ve seen everything else (or ruled everything else out). It’s not that the feature debut of seasoned TV director James Kent (“EastEnders”, “Marchlands”) was poorly received, it’s that it was received with a polite clap, and words like “competent”.
For a period piece about World War I England, that filtered through to me as “boring”.
But it’s not boring at all. It is deeply sad, as World War I movies tend to be. But neither ineffectively nor cheaply so, and both The Boy and I were quite pleasantly surprised at how good it was, and how it managed to create suspense out of foregone conclusions (it’s WWI, which has a death rate that gives George R. R. Martin the shakes), and likable characters from not necessarily likable templates.
Indeed, the story it tells is, from the outset, not one that appeals to me. Our heroine is the real life Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina, A Royal Affair) who observes the fate of her brother, her fianceé, her rebuked-but-oh-so-English-dignified suitor as they are rerouted from their privileged lives at Oxford to decidedly less privileged environs in trenches.
The real-life Brittain (understandably) became a pacifist after her experiences, but the understandability of that doesn’t really deflect from the whole obsession with pacifism that led to the disastrous consequences of World War II.
However, Kent and screenwriter Towhidi (Calendar Girls) stay out of the political, except at the very end, where we can completely understand and empathize with Brittain’s motives, because they’ve given us a chance to experience her story.
Anyway, when we first meet Brittain, she’s a spoiled little brat, in that Upper Middle Class white woman way that seems to produce the majority of feminist leaders. Her angst stems from not being allowed to go to Oxford (or Somerville, which is the female version of Oxford but on the same campus, I think).
Her father allows her to sit for the test, which requires an essay written in Latin, for which she is unprepared. (The implication is that she’s an auto-didact, but perhaps only in Latin.)
She gets in anyway, of course, but her plans are derailed a bit when a minor Archduke is assassinated far, far away.
The first thing she does is bully her parents (Emily Watson, The Book Thief, Anna Karenina) and especially her father (Dominic West, 300, John Carter) into letting her brother (Taron Egerton, Kingsman) go. Dad’s reluctant, not really believing all this “the war will be over in a few months” talk.
Her tune changes, of course, when talking about her beau (Kit Harrington, who actually looks more the age he’s playing here than he does on “Game of Thrones” because he’s so clean-shaven) who also insists on going to war.
What salvages this story is that Brittain herself goes to war, in the only way she can, as a volunteer nurse. First in England, but finally on the French front. Apart from her jealousy when her beau is on leave—realizing that he has a bond with his troop mates she can never share—she becomes a realized human being at this point, and the war stops being about her, and more about the soldiers fighting it. (Though a trip back home to visit her increasingly grief-addled mother shows a characteristic lack of patience for anyone not exactly where she is in her understanding of life, the universe and everything.)
Then it kind of hits you: These people—the real people—they’re all between about 18-23 during the events depicted. And despite being the sort of effete-seeming upper class that was so popular to lampoon in my youth, they had a toughness, a sense of responsibility and a maturity we don’t expect today out of our 30-somethings.
And there’s a whole lot of death they experienced.
It’s very well done. Very human. Interesting. Moving. And overall better than the generally polite accolades it’s being given.