Film Reviews

AS PITHY AS IT GETS – <i>Testament of Youth</i> (2014)

AS PITHY AS IT GETS – Testament of Youth (2014)

Alice Chou

July 19th, 2015


War is hell. War is bloody. We have seen this depicted in many different war movies, and some, unfortunately, have firsthand experiences that have forever changed their lives. At first glance, Testament of Youth looks like a Masterpiece Theater production; an English period drama that resembles Downton Abbey. This comparison does not do this movie justice. It is a coming-of-age story of a budding feminist and pacifist. It is about the loss of innocence with aspiration, hope, and joy, replaced by disillusion, despair, and resentment, and about the love found and lost in times of turmoil and chaos.

Adapted by screenwriter Juliette Towhidi (Calendar Girls), based on a 1933 World War I memoir by Vera Brittain, and directed by British director James Kent, the movie stars Alicia Vikander, the Swedish actress who played the perfect artificial intelligence in Ex Machina, as Vera Brittain. The movie begins on Armistice Day, November 1918, when everyone is celebrating the end of World War I except Vera. She looks distraught and pained. The screen fades and the movie flashes back to four years earlier. Here we see Vera and her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), and his two friends Roland (Kit Harington, fan favorite Jon Snow of Games of Thrones), and Victor (Colin Morgan), enjoying a life full of excitement and promises. Vera fights with her parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson). They want her to play the piano and find a husband. She wants to go to Oxford and be a writer. Despite her proclamation that she will never marry anyone, she falls in love with Roland. Their love blossoms, despite being chaperoned whenever they are together. Just when things are going her way, all the men in her life go to war. It is going to be a quick and fast war, as most believed at the time. She also joins the war effort by becoming a nurse. What she sees and experiences would change her perspective on war and life.

Vikander gives a passionate performance as a determined, feisty, high-spirited, outspoken, and smart woman. The intensity of her performance dominates and carries the film. She is the movie and is what makes this movie stand out from others. The other actors pale in comparison. There are many close-up shots of her face, allowing her expressions, overt or subtle, to convey her thoughts and emotions. Based on her work here and in Ex Machina, she has a bright future in cinema. There are also not many war movies told from a female point of view.

Unlike other war movies, there are no battle scenes or violence. Maybe it is due to Vera Brittain’s and the movie’s anti-war position. Instead, we see hollow-eyed, shell-shocked soldiers covered in mud, sitting or lying in trenches, dead soldiers on the roadside, and the wounded crying out in pain. There is a crane shot of countless wounded soldiers on stretchers, reminiscent of the one in Gone With the Wind. Even though we do not see actual fighting, we can imagine the horror and the suffering these soldiers and the ones who care for them have endured. There is a scene in which Vera is taking care of wounded German soldiers and she muses that while she is saving the Germans from dying, her brothers is a few miles away, killing them. She asks,”Does it make you wonder?”

I cannot comment on the faithfulness of the adaptation, as I have not had read the memoir. The book is still in print and has been called the voice of a generation. From the movie, however, we do get a good sense on how Vera Brittain progressed from a young woman frustrated with the limited role for women in society, but determined to go against the norm and make a difference, to someone filled with bitterness and sadness in just four years, as well as her ability to move past it and keep on living.

Testament of Youth continues its run at the Bijou Art Cinemas. Click here for showtimes.

Alice Chou is a physician by trade, but a lifelong cinephile and a novice movie reviewer. As Pithy as it Gets is an irregular column in which she provides critical analysis of films screening locally.

Leave a Reply