Testament of Youth comes without a single shred of irony or contemporary consideration. It’s a war film, tried and true, as old-fashioned as it can be. It’s like watching a Powell and Pressburger film without the cinematic vigor and compassion, or an even drier Mrs. Minniver. And yet these observations would all be taken as considerable praise by Testament of Youth. It wants to be understood that way: stuffy, but noble.
Based on the seminal autobiography by Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth is a period drama about one woman’s episodic and agonizing life during wartime. It’s World War I, complete with the mud and the blood and the total cluelessness about PTSD. Men are men and war-bound, while women stand by in support. The currently fashionable Alicia Vikander is the embattled Brittain, and Testament of Youth tells its story through her bruised eyes.
This is 1914. Women aren’t supposed to be anything but docile human décor, but Brittain is forthright, brash, a total pain in the ass, and absolutely mighty. She wants it all: love, education, to support the war, to defy her parents, and to prove herself. A fiercely dominant, willful, and proud young woman, Brittain practically yells her way into Oxford. She tells her pop to cram it after he gets Brittain a piano, spending money that could have gone to getting her through college. Brittain duffs her exams and nearly screws up her chance at school (she wasn’t aware of any stinking Latin requirement in the exams and gives the head mistress a stern talking to — it’s charming). When her brother Edward (Taron Egarton) wants to enlist, she supports him and takes leave to be a nurse. Vera is chased by a handsome, constip — sorry, very English young man, Roland (Kit Harington), and she’s always in control of the relationship. Needless to say, it’s a coming-of-age story set in an age of disillusionment, but Brittain holds fast every step of the way.
And it’s all so straight, or really, uptight. Vekander traverses the period with equal parts pride and terror, and she’s great, but she feels like an actor, not someone embodying a life. In fact, the whole thing is kind of stagey, like a PBS/BBC televised event production (BBC did produce). Is it rude to say that her pained screams for doctors or emoting through single tears comes across as porcelain highlight-reel stuff? Testament of Youth pushes for the passionate, but it’s stuck in passé. There’s a lot of great story, and Brittain’s life is certainly fascinating, but it’s so bloody stodgy.
There’s so much young talent here, and as a classical combat parable, Testament of Youth is equal parts love and languor, blood and British history. And yet, one can’t shake the all too aristocratic, snooty, and self-serious theatrics of something that comes off like a prep school’s fall play. Perhaps that’s because when one is young and in crisis, they can’t help but emote all the weight of the world on their faces. This is based on a young person’s memoirs, after all. Granted, Youth is not about frivolous young things, like dating problems or getting good grades. If anything, Testament of Youth has enormous perspective. This diary is about hoping your fiancée doesn’t die on the field and can make it home for a wedding, as there’s no email, no cell phones, just dim faith that life will all work out somehow.