Take out the British accents, throw in a cancer subplot, and you have nothing more than a Nicholas Sparks adaptation.
Right before WWI begins, a young woman by the name of Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) lives in on the quiet, comfortable countryside of Britain with her mother (Emily Watson), father (Dominic West), and dear brother Edward (Taron Egerton). Of all the things Vera wants in this world, other than to find a true love that she can spend the rest of her life with, is to go to university, get a job as a writer and make a living for her own-self, rather than sponging off of whatever man she marries and not having her own control over herself. While she remains determined by this pipe-dream, she then sets her sights on a classmate of her brother, Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington). Though he’s a bit of a smarty-pants, there’s something about him that catches Vera off-guard and rather than focusing on her studies, she lets Roland get in the way of everything in her mind. This isn’t such a bad thing considering that young love is always the best love to have, but with WWI looming on the horizon, it definitely puts everything into perspective.
What’s interesting about Testament of Youth (which may not be a surprise to anyone who’s ever read Brittain’s original, 1933 novel of the same name, is how it starts out as one thing, making you believe it’s going to go exactly where you expect it to, and then, all of a sudden, switch gears. By this, I’m talking about how the movie, initially, seems like it’s just going to be a coming-of-age romance flick about this one young girl growing up during WWI and how much she swoons for her boyfriend, while he’s off fighting in another country. That’s where the movie seemed as if it was heading and while it definitely isn’t the worst way to tell this story, it’s definitely not the most refreshing, either.
But somehow, everything changes about halfway through.
I won’t drop the ball on what the plot-twist in the middle of the flick is, but it changes everything up from being this sappy, almost saccharine romantic-drama, to being something much more dark, deep and, dare I say it, scary. Director James Kent makes several mentions of how the war is tearing Britain up from the inside out; soon though, he actually shows us exactly how it’s doing so, and it’s quite eye-opening. As most anti-war movies tend to be, Testament of Youth doesn’t necessarily hide its message underneath its coat and act as if you didn’t just see it flash you; it knows that you, the viewer, understand that this was is bad and is killing just about every young male left in their damn country.
Once again, though, Kent changes things up in more or less keeping his focus solely on Vera herself and not forgetting that this is, in fact, her story and it deserves to be seen visibly and heard loudly for all to contemplate. See, with Vera, it’s never clear exactly what’s driving her – sure, she wants to go to Oxford and prove to herself that she can handle the studies, but at the same time, it seems like her mind goes elsewhere at points. Though she never makes any previous mention of wanting a man in her life, as soon as she spots this handsome young devil, she all of a sudden can’t keep her act together; she’s stammering and stuttering all over the place, and it’s evidently clear that she wants something with this man.
But why? That’s the real question.
Sure, Vera wants love in her life, as we mostly all do, but what exactly is she going to get out of it? She knows that a war is coming up and that her soon-to-be-boyf will have to go out there on the battlefield and fight the “good” fight, so why does she even bother with it? Surely, she can’t know of the actual outcome of this war and the affect it will have on her boy, right?
Well, that’s what’s so interesting about Vera herself, as well as the movie, is that it keeps us at just a comfortable enough length of space to where we see this character for all that she is, yet, still never fully get her. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that, at the time, Vera herself was so messed-up and traumatized that writing all of this down for the whole world to see was just too much for her own well-being, or maybe not. Either way, there’s no denying that Alicia Vikander is great in this lead role – especially in a year that she seems to be dominating so far.
And we’re already through the first-half of the year, and she’s got about five movies left!
Gosh! When does this gal ever slow down?
Anyway, what Vikander does well here is that she finds a common-ground within Vera that makes her strong enough to take care of herself and not worry about what decisions she makes, other than those that she doesn’t make for herself, with the vulnerable side that just wants a man to fall in love and grow old with. She’s never such a hard-case to where it seems like she’s not an actual teenager to begin with, nor is she all that star-struck with the world around her; she’s just the right amount of cynical and innocent, which somehow, totally works for this character.
And of course the rest of the cast is fine, even if not everybody gets as much of a chance to fully stretch out their wings quite like Vikander does. Kit Harrington is charming enough as Roland to make it understandable why a woman would fall so in love with him ever so quickly; Dominic West and Emily Watson are serviceable as the parents that always seem to be there in the background, even if their presences aren’t always fully known; Taron Egerton is good as Vera’s brother that goes off to war and seems like he has no clue what’s going to come next; and Hayley Atwell, despite not having a whole slew of scenes in the final product, does well enough to where she can be remembered.
No matter what though, they’re all left in Vikander’s dust.
Consensus: With a surprising touch of insight, Testament of Youth works as a romance flick, an anti-war movie, and a bio on one woman who didn’t let anyone tell her what her path in life should be, even despite the very progressive time she lived in.
8 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire