Pacifism is extinct as a populist political platform, replaced by the bipartisan and inoffensive talking point of “Support the Troops.” No single film will restore its influence, but the World War I-set “Testament of Youth” makes a passionate and sensible case for it through devastating, melancholy, persevering drama.
The can-do idealism and soft-lit romance that begin the film soon abandon us to the cruel terribleness thereafter. Shortly before the assassination of a far-off archduke changes her life completely, aspiring poet Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) revels in achieving her life goal: to be admitted to Oxford, where women can attend classes but haven’t yet won the right to earn diplomas. Her father (Dominic West) worries that an education will mar his daughter’s marriage prospects, but Vera’s loyal younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton) convinces the family patriarch otherwise.
Mr. Brittain needn’t worry, anyway; Vera has effortlessly sparked the romantic interest of Edward’s schoolmates Roland (“Game of Thrones” heartthrob Kit Harington) and Victor (Colin Morgan), both of whom are the type of men who make passes at girls who wear glasses.
With deft, nimble touches, screenwriter Juliette Towhidi (“Calendar Girls”) breezily establishes the socio-cultural milieu that Vera grows up in and hopes to contribute to. “Do we have a suffragette on our hands?” teases Roland, and Vera, waiting for her life to begin, affirms, “I will be, given the chance.” The historical specificity serves not only to emphasize Vera’s forerunning — though there are enough female students at Oxford for a snooty woman professor (Miranda Richardson) to sniff at all the “socialites” on campus — but also to illustrate how the Great War shaped the beliefs of and gave hard-won experience to an engaged, political mind.
Vera and Roland’s poem-trading courtship, especially their mutual nurture of each other’s literary talents, make for a swooning first act. But war beckons him, along with Edward and Victor, like a siren; they can’t resist its call, its opportunities for manly heroics. Unable to sit out on life any longer, Vera abandons the ivory tower to become a nurse, first in a London veterans’ hospital, then in the French front lines. The fluent German that she used to get into Oxford is now used to comfort dying enemy soldiers.
When Roland returns home for a visit, he’s comfortable with male bravado and little else. In a moving confession, he admits in tears that the part of him that wrote sonnets may have withered on the battlefield. Roland’s too destined for great things to be felled so young, Vera is reassured, especially after they become betrothed. But his personal effects are among the first to be returned to his family when he’s killed by a German sniper. And he’s not the last among Vera’s close circle to meet his end far from home in a blood-soaked uniform.
Based on the real-life Brittain’s memoir of the same name, “Testament of Youth” is above all an elegy for the “lost generation” decimated by the First World War, a conflict that saw many more casualties than those of previous generations, thanks to newly advanced technologies of killing. It’s also a survivor’s tale — not a guilty one, but one grappling with how to participate in a brutal, often unthinking world and how to go on living a life disfigured by death.
All of which makes “Testament of Youth” sound pretty miserable, which it isn’t. Longtime TV director James Kent, making his feature debut here, heartrendingly mimics the sudden accrual of tragedy in Brittain’s life, but this is also a picture with considerable charm and heroics. When Vera first arrives at the hospital not too far from the combat zone, she may as well have disembarked in hell, given the rows of writhing bodies before her. (The dead are piled on top of one other in a makeshift shed.) But her resolve and dedication carry her through, even when there are too many soldiers to save — and, after the war, when her fellow citizens clamor for vengeance against the Kaiser with more bullets and artillery shells.
The men are slightly forgettable, but the woman is not. Far from the flawless fembot in “Ex Machina,” Vikander’s slight gawkiness is highlighted here, allowing her to look like a real girl, absolutely the right decision by Kent.
Vera is overworked flesh and boiling blood, and Vikander is full of star-making ardor and grit, a vision of matter-of-fact urgency in gauze. If Vera is occasionally too perfect, so be it. They don’t make them like her anymore anyway.