Testament of Youth (2015)
dir. James Kent
written by: Juliette Towhidi
starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, Taron Egerton, Dominic West, Emily Watson, Joanna Scanlan, Miranda Richardson
3 out of 4 stars
For this year, and likely those following, we praise Alicia Vikander. With a Jessica Chastain/Jennifer Lawrence-style awakening, Vikander’s career has risen from foreign films and featured performances in period drama to providing multiple, consistently admirable portrayals in a single year. She was the acting highlight of The Danish Girl, possessed subtle yet unsettling grace in Ex Machina, and some people liked The Man From U.N.C.L.E at least partially because of her. Catching up on the final of her major releases (trust me, I’m not watching Burnt), Vikander inhabits a coming-of-age drama during World War I.
Based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain, Vikander portrays the aforementioned uppercrest idealist and aspiring suffragette. Following her desire to seek higher education at Cambridge, the outbreak of World War I draws the proud and determined Vera to nursing, much to the ire of her parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson, very stodgy in demeanor). Encountering the gruesome reality of war, Vikander rolls with the trauma and expresses her most accurate of emotions. Though starting off shaky, she improves tremendously as her character ages; it is likely the 27-year-old actress has outgrown coming of age roles. Her naivete is transformed into ambition and a strong passivism stance by the end, experiencing the loss of family and relations.
The script, written by Calendar Girls scribe Juliette Towhidi, is given very much a television delivery, likely due to director James Kent’s primarily television based career–he’s even taken on an episode of each 11/22/63 and American Crime. Filled with ample melodrama, particularly in earlier rebellious scenes, it is difficult to pinpoint where Vera finds her petulance–direction, writing or acting. Fortunately, Vera ages and finds her passions and her desires and her loves, and we are all the better for it.
The men in her life are recognizable and handsome, though their performances find little novelty. Brother Taron Egerton seeks his post Kingsman position with a highly forgettable role, and love interest Kit Harrington shows similar lovability as in Cinderella, but his chops are still rather unrefined. Smaller but vital roles as her female caretakers before and during Cambridge result in the most memorable non-Alicia moments. Aunt Belle, her frequent chaperone on budding excursions, provides quiet but piercing protection by way of Joanna Scanlan, a staple of British drama. Miranda Richardson commands the most lasting role as the stern Miss Lorimer. As guide to Vikander during her college experience before and after the war, a warm, tough love exudes from her tightly pursed lips. Never allowing outright sentimentality, Richardson guides Vikander with a fist, not unlike Emma Thompson in An Education, fierce but with a more understanding side; these were more demure times.
Though troubled with romantic sentiments in line with British melodrama, Vikander elevates the material with an empowered young woman following her own path. Kent reels in a large collection of characters, dresses them in gorgeous period garb, and places them into a nicely paced war drama. The movie seeps into the war; it is hardly mentioned outright but rather grows in intensity through Vera’s experiences, a natural progression unseen in many a war film. This movie is a pleasant experience.