It could be that half a century of war movies have left us collectively jaded; at least those of us who have seen far too many films. Reviewing those films always poses a mild dilemma, the critic or casual filmgoer caught between topical reverence and frank analysis of entertainment. Sometimes it’s easy. Take Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds: it has no topical reverence or relevance in the first place, so you have no choice to judge it on its own terms, which are strictly entertainment. Then there are the earnest films, like Testament of Youth, movies so well meaning in their thematic aesthetic that it feels callous to castigate them for being strenuously dull or narratively clichéd.
Narrative cliché seems a harsh accusation for an actual war memoir, in this case, the movie’s source material, Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Your reviewer, having not read the book and therefore being ill equipped to make comparisons, will confine his gripes solely to the movie on which it is based.
Vera (Alicia Vikander) is a young Englishwoman with a promising life ahead. It takes some persuading, but after convincing her father to let her sit the entrance exam, she gets into prestigious Oxford, where she struggles to assert herself as a woman amidst Edwardian academia. Her beau Roland (Kit Harington, Game of Thrones) is attending Oxford too. Unfortunately it is 1914, which means soon the Archduke will be assassinated and ruin everything. He is, and it does. Roland enlists and quickly joins the front. Vera contends with Oxford a short while longer before volunteering as a nurse. Very soon she is forced to confront the horror of front-line war casualty and personal loss, as those she loves become additions to the mounting list of dead.
Much of the film seems to exist in a vacuum. That there is little sense of impending threat in this vacuum, that the men and women of 1914 take the war prospect more casually than you think they should might be the point; but the downside is the way it diminishes a sense of consequence for the audience: you don’t care as much as you should. You could argue that it is a deliberate matter of perspective. Testament is discourse from the too often neglected female viewpoint. Unfortunately, its effectiveness is severely diminished by its resemblance to a bland BBC costume drama, the sort you’ve seen too many times before, or maybe a slow night on Downton Abbey. A girl parts with her lover, he goes off to war, war is hell, etc. All of it is imbued with the over-exaggerated sense of Englishness typical of period dramas, which make caricatures of characters.
You might consider it a sad cultural indictment that this is now so formulaic; and it certainly is not Vera Brittain’s fault that the all too similar stories of wartime heroes/heroines/etc. have become archetypal. Blame the producers for not finding a more novel way to approach the material.
It is the second half of the film that is the more effective. Like the first half, it is hardly novel, but it is more directly elegiac, and the tangible sense of grief more touching than the love lives of uprooted provincials. The imagery becomes more lyrical, the brutality more pronounced, juxtaposed with readings of Vera and Roland’s poems and letters, more affecting for knowing they were written by actual flesh and blood persons now a century ago.
Alicia Vikander is likeable as Vera, if at times a bit wooden. The same goes for Harington, who seems to be playing a later incarnation of his Game of Thrones character John Snow, à la, ‘Blackadder.’ Emily Watson as Vera’s mother is terribly underused in proportion to her capabilities, and her presence seems sadly redundant.
Part of the problem with Testament is that, at over two hours it is too long, the substance of the material is not enough to support the length, and were it cut more economically, it might appear to drag less than it does. On the other hand, its general simplicity and unpretentiousness is a strength compared to other films one could arbitrarily name: it at least is not propagandist (American Sniper; Black Hawk Down; The Hurt Locker); or deceitful and overly manipulative (Schindler’s List; Saving Private Ryan); and its clichés are nothing compared to The Water Diviner. Testament of Youth is well meaning and often poignant, despite its faults, and that’s a far less damning accusation.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10