Many historians contend that World War I was the most brutal conflict in human history. It marked the moment when age-old alliances and rivalries collided with modern technology. It was the war that gave us poison gas and bomber planes. It was fought from trenches, one bloody acre at a time. A century later, there is still no good rationale for “the war to end all wars,” which cost more than 8.5 million men their lives.
Most of those men had loved ones on the homefront, and any story that reminds us of this ancillary suffering is a public service. Vera Brittain’s memoir “Testament of Youth” is among the best-known accounts of civilian sacrifice during that conflict. Brittain was an independent young woman, an aspiring writer who suspended her studies at Oxford to serve as a nurse on the front lines. She lost her brother and her fiance to the war, and afterward she became an outspoken pacifist.
Those are the ingredients of a potentially powerful film, but this adaption of Brittain’s memoir is just another upper-crusty love story, with the war playing the small role of the meddlesome neighbor who keeps the lovers apart.
Circa 1914, teen Vera (Alicia Vikander, “Ex Machina”) is aghast when her well-to-do parents buy her a piano while declining to pay for her higher education. So Vera eschews a tutor to prepare for the Oxford entrance exam alone. During a holiday idyll, brother Edward (Taron Egerton) introduces Vera to his friend Roland (Kit Harrington, a yawn), who is also a wannabe poet. After a veddy British courtship and Vera’s skin-of-her teeth admission to Oxford, she imagines a scholarly future with Roland. But then there’s that damn war.
Is it too much to ask to that a war film which touts its heroine’s intelligence might offer some insight into the world she inhabits? Roland and Edward volunteer for duty, and their kinfolk all say that they look so handsome in their uniforms. We even get the obligatory scene of the tearful Vera running alongside the departing troop train. But because Vera is left behind, the contrast between prewar optimism and battlefield reality doesn’t have the first-person perspective that would give it impact. True, we see a few shots of huddled soldiers with smudges on their young faces, and volunteer Vera eventually applies bandages at a base behind the front lines, but there’s barely a drop of blood in the entire film.
And what of Ms. Brittain’s pacifism, the honorable cause for which she became famous? It’s tacked onto the final scene of the movie, after the war, when the grieving young Vera stumbles into a rally about war reparations and makes a passionate utterance for the first time in the entire two-hour film.
“Testament of Youth” is lovely to look at, and Vikander does nothing to derail her inevitable ascension to the A-list. But as a story, it evokes a word that no battlefield nurse would ever apply to her experiences: sterile.
What “Testament of Youth” • Two stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 1:29 • Content Thematic material including disturbing war images • Where Plaza Frontenac