It’s not a spoiler to point out that World War I was, up till that time, the most catastrophic killer of young men in recorded history. The pain and loss of those four muddy, bloody years are visible in the face of Vera (Alicia Vikander) during the first moment of Testament of Youth. She’s a stricken figure in London on Armistice Day, 1918. On the street among flag-waving revelers, she’s as much a ghost as all the boys buried across the Channel in foreign soil.
Based on Vera Brittain’s antiwar memoir of the same name, Testament flashes back to four years earlier. Vera is younger and unhaunted then. An autodidact living in upper-middle class comfort in rural Buxton, she longs to go to Oxford, like her kid brother Edward (Taron Egerton). In this pre-suffragette era, her father (Dominic West) prefers she practice her piano playing and other husband-luring skills. Her mother (Emily Watson) keeps out of it, as women of the day were taught to do.
But Edward stands up for her, convincing their dad that Vera should have a chance at university. Unfortunately, she does the same for him, persuading their father to let her brother go when Edward determines to enlist when war erupts.
All the boys want to serve their country, including Edward’s friends Victor (Colin Morgan) and Roland (Game of Throne’s Kit Harington), who quickly becomes more than just Vera’s friend. As with the American Civil War, the European conflict is seen by these young men as something that will surely be over before the year’s end — a grand boys’ adventure, and a rugged holiday away from their studies.
But history has other plans. Edward, Roland and Victor get swept into combat. And Vera likewise suspends her university life, volunteering as a nurse on the home front, then in France.
Probably the movie’s richest scene happens during one of Roland’s wartime leaves. Strolling the seaside alone with Vera, he’s moody, at a loss — but when Edward and Victor turn up, he launches into a hearty show of soldierly camaraderie. Vera, who has seen as much blood and horror at her patients’ bedsides, refuses to be excluded from their boys’ club. She forces Roland to look into her eyes and acknowledge the psychic damage the war has wrought.
The movie could use more scenes like that. Testament is the sort of sweeping period drama people used to complain that nobody makes any more. It’s true, the genre is an endangered species.
In many ways, the movie is deliberately very old-fashioned. It hits the expected plot points and borders on cliché. For example, Vera and Roland flirt among sunlit ivory linens fluttering on clotheslines. Rain falls like teardrops upon the endless newspaper columns listing the dead. Some moments feel almost like self-parody.
But the tale’s perspective through Vera’s eyes gives it a freshness and added complexity, and the translucent Vikander (Ex Machina, A Royal Affair) is persuasive from start to finish.
It helps that director James Kent inserts vivid and allusive image fragments — Vera’s shimmery memories of Roland walking through a forest ahead of her, or his arm, or his neck. These are glimpses of happiness that you can sense might be snatched away without warning.
Testament of Youth. With Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton. Directed by James Kent. Rated PG-13. 129 minutes. At the Tara.