By Bill Goodykoontz |Gannett News ServiceFor many Americans, World War I is a sort of warm-up act for what would follow. Serious business to be sure, but not the noble, world-saving enterprise that World War II would become — notourwar.Not so in Europe, where the sheer devastation of the first world war redefined how a generation viewed itself — and the world. This is reflected in a continuing fasciation in film, with “Testament of Youth” the latest outstanding example.
James Kent’s film is based on Vera Brittain’s acclaimed memoir chronicling her experiences during the war. Alicia Vikander shines as the independent-minded Vera who, like so many of those of her generation, would lose so much.
The film begins with Armistice Day in 1918, with Vera looking dazed by the news of peace. It then flashes back to four years earlier, where Vera romps around with her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his friend Victor (Colin Morgan). The idyllic scene goes sour when they return to Vera and Edward’s stately home, where Vera’s father (Dominic West), the rich owner of paper mills, has bought her a piano.
She’s infuriated by the gift: It would, she reminds her father, pay for an entire year at Oxford. But he and Vera’s mother (Emily Watson) want a husband for Vera, not a college degree.
She doesn’t want to marry, she tells them. Then Roland (Kit Harington), Edward’s friend, is introduced into the combustible mix. He’s bound for Oxford himself and like Vera wants to be a writer. He shares poems with her; she pushes him to reveal more of himself in them. Crucially, Vera finally gets her wish to enroll at Oxford, too, where she and Roland can be together.
And then, the war.
Edward, Victor and Roland, along with classmates and friends, all enlist with enthusiasm. They say the war will be short, they assure Vera. They make it sound like spring break. Their innocence and naiveté is heartbreaking.
As the war rages on, Vera will take a break from Oxford, with the grudging support of an instructor (Miranda Richardson) who knows the cost of war herself, and volunteer to work as a nurse, first in a London hospital, later behind the lines in France. Both at Oxford, then in this work, her posh upbringing is initially held against her but, no pun intended, Vera soldiers on, proving herself capable of whatever task is needed, no matter how grisly.
At the field hospital in France she tends to a dying German soldier and, fluent in the language, hears his last words. This and other events will shape her pacifism, for which she will become an eloquent and outspoken champion. It is the only sense she can make of something so senseless.
Vikander was so good as Eve, the possibly sentient android, in “Ex Machina” earlier this year. Here she is just as good in a far different kind of role. (She’s also featured in the upcoming “Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” among other projects.) She captures Vera’s headstrong nature while making room for her vulnerability. She feels loss deeply yet never lets it defeat her. It’s always back to work, because there is nothing else to do but to keep on.
This is World War I from a woman’s point of view, a different perspective than we usually see. It’s the story of someone who doesn’t fight — who would be so shaped by tragedy that she would vow never to — but for whom the horrors of war are just as vivid and devastating.
Sony Pictures Classicspresents a film directed by James Kent and written by Juliette Towhidi, based on the memoir by Vera Brittain. Running time: 129minutes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic material including bloody and disturbing war-related images). Opens Friday at local theaters.