Monday, July 27, 2015

Testament of Youth (2014) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Mick LaSalle for the S.F. Chronicle (www.sfgate.com), Thursday, June 11, 2015.

Testament: Outcry against WWI’s horror

World War I remains the disaster the world has never completely digested, because, like the Wicked Witch of the East, it was followed by something even worse. But for Great Britain and France, its death toll was greater than that of World War II, involving the decimation of a generation of young men.

Testament of Youth dramatizes a war memoir that’s not from the usual angle. Based on the book of the same name by feminist author Vera Brittain, it tells the story of World War I from the viewpoint of a young, upper-middle-class British woman who had a brother, a fiance and family friends fighting on the front lines. Though it had been the ambition of her life to study at Oxford, Brittain left school within months of enrolling to take a job nursing the wounded.

By 1914, the 20th century had yet to show its true colors, but then it did, all at once, with a ferocity that must have astounded people. As Testament of Youth begins, Vera (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) and her friends have no conception that their lives are about to be upended. In the summer of 1914, they’re swimming in the pond, strolling through the countryside and dreading nothing more terrible than the start of school. Then the war erupts, and the men start enlisting.

World War I — or the Great War, as it was known for more than 20 years — marks what will probably stand as the last time anyone could be fooled into thinking of war as a noble and glorious undertaking. The men sign up in a sporting spirit, or at least to avoid ridicule. In the case of Vera’s genial younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton), Vera must intervene with her father to allow the boy to go. In her mind, and his, she is doing him a favor.

As Vera, Vikander is virtually in every scene, the eyes, ears and conscience of the film. When we meet her, Vera is already angry, that her father won’t pay for her education (but will pay for her brother’s), and everything that happens subsequently only confirms in her the sense that men are running the world into the ground. Testament of Youth demands that an actress convey a fierce intelligence, an ever-deepening understanding and a depthless sorrow, lest the story have no impact or meaning. She also must show the openness of youth, a willingness to hope and be happy, because this is not a movie about a scold. Vikander accomplishes all this, often in close-up, for director James Kent’s searching camera.

That it’s not a fiction but based on a memoir allows for some unexpected scenes, as the truth is often more extreme than the things we imagine. There’s a brilliant sequence in which Vera’s boyfriend Roland (Kit Harington), a fellow would-be writer, returns home for a few days, after months at the front, and he acts scornful and indifferent toward her. After months of waiting and worrying, she is almost crushed, until she has the insight that she represents emotion to him. She understands that he fears opening himself up to all that feeling, and yet he must or else he’ll lose himself.

When it was published in 1933, Brittain’s Testament of Youth was a best-seller. Timing is everything in the book world, and the memoir arrived just as intelligent people were beginning to dread and fear a second world war. To see this film is to understand — not in an intellectual way, but in a direct, visceral way — why the British ignored the threat of Adolf Hitler for so long.

In World War I, a generation learned that war was not the answer. In World War II, another generation learned that pacifism was not the answer. It would seem that there just isn’t an answer. [LaSalle’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: biography, drama, history, tragedy, war


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