Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: "Testament of Youth"

"Testament of Youth" is a memoir of the dead; like the ghosts it chases the film is haunting,  beautiful, and transparent.

At the time of its publication nearly a century ago, the book by Vera Brittain was a very big deal, launching her writing career and status as a leading 20th century pacifist. She followed it up with other "Testament" memoirs, but the first one covering her young life and the horrors of World War I was the most indelible.

It's a well-crafted film -- director James Kent has a painterly eye for landscapes, and knows how to juxtapose backgrounds with inner turmoil of the characters. His career has been spent entirely in British television, but he seems to appreciate the scale of the big screen and uses it to strong effect.

The screenplay by Juliette Towhidi attempts to pack years of Vera's life into two hours, including a young proto-feminist convincing the world she deserves to study at Oxford, the strains of romantic and familial love, and the sweeping terror of the war ripping through it all.

The result is a film that feels both hurried and languorous.

The best thing about it is Alicia Vikander as Vera. You may remember her playing a self-aware robot in "Ex Machina," and she shows a similar mix of vulnerability and sturdy determination in this role. Her Vera is fully-formed, with shadings and subtleties.

The rest of the roster doesn't fare so well. Other figures slide in and out of Vera's picture frame, catching our attention for a while but moving on without much visceral impact.

I admired the romantic imagery and themes of the early going. In an early pivotal scene, Vera walks down a country road with three beautiful boys to keep her company. They are young, vibrant, full of life and the cockiness of English upper-class privilege. We know instantly that their flesh will become gruel for the machinery of war.

The primary relationship is with Roland Leighton (Kit Harington from "Game of Thrones"), a budding writer like Vera. He takes an instant shine to her fiery sense of independence and prodigious talents, though she has to be convinced he's not a commonplace cad.

Her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) is a scamp with a noble streak, arguing to their parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson) that Vera deserves a chance to study at Oxford, too. Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan) is the quiet, well-meaning friend Edward would like to set her up with.

The story follows Vera's journey to college -- Miranda Richardson turns up as a demanding headmistress. But the grim tide of warfare rolls in, and everything becomes predictably tragic.

I appreciated what this film was trying to do more than how it went about doing it. The story held few surprises for me; it always seemed like the next steps of Vera's dark journey are telegraphed, so we know which way she will turn even before she realizes it herself.

Alicia Vikander is young actress to watch, a fierce emotional and intellectual presence onscreen. Her lush portrayal, though, does not negate the fact that this paean to the dead is too often lifeless and insensible.

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