Friday, May 29, 2015

"Testament Of Youth" -- Movie Review

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama from The United Kingdom, “Testament Of Youth”, based on the memoirs of British writer Vera Brittain. 


When a young woman’s life is disrupted by the onset of World War I, how will the war’s events impact the rest of her life?


As a young woman in early 20th Century England, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) is more concerned about her career than landing a husband.  Working hard to get into a university, she earns acceptance by Oxford, much to her father’s consternation.  Although Mr. Brittain (Dominic West) is worried about his daughter being alone, he’s convinced to pay for her education by Roland (Kit Harington), a young man who’s very much smitten with Vera.  Determined to become a writer, Vera studies hard once at Oxford, but gets sidetracked once “The Great War” begins. 

It seems like everyone close to Vera suddenly joins the army – her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), her friend Victor (Colin Morgan) and her now-boyfriend Roland.  With all of them off to fight the war, Vera feels guilty remaining in school, so she leaves Oxford in order to become a nurse as a way of assisting in the war effort.  Despite a rocky start, Vera grows into the job.  When Roland is given a leave, he and Vera are briefly reunited; while he remains aloof at first, Vera persistently shows her devotion to him and he softens.  When it’s time for him to return to the front, they agree that when he gets his next leave around Christmas, they will marry. 

The war, however, cruelly intervenes once again; Roland is killed in action before they can wed and soon thereafter, Victor, while under Vera’s care at the hospital where she’s stationed, also passes away from injuries incurred during battle.  Vera then requests and receives a transfer to the front in France where Edward turns up as a patient; badly wounded, she gets him some much-needed medical care before sending him back into action.  Once Vera is forced to return home by her frantic mother (Emily Watson), she is informed that Edward, too, was killed.  Returning to her nursing duties, Vera is less celebratory than most upon announcement of the armistice.  But with the war’s end, can she simply resume with pursuing her chosen career as though nothing happened? 


While all of the performances are fine, “Testament Of Youth” suffers from some occasionally overwrought direction by James Kent, who opts for a rather heavy-handed approach during revelation at some of the major plot points, relegating the movie into what sometimes appears to be a sappy melodrama.  It’s unfortunate because the story did have so much promise; unfortunately, it isn’t until late in the film – during the middle of its third act, to be precise – that it takes a stab at trying to redeem itself.  Here, the motion picture shows what it’s really about – an independent suffragette who turns devout pacifist as a direct result of having personally witnessed the ravages of war.

At the end of "Testament Of Youth", there are title cards shown informing the audience that Brittain's book was a best-seller in England and remains in print to this day.  While the book itself may be impressive, the movie version on which it is based is not.  In fact, learning how impacting this book was on British culture comes as something of a shock, at least if you're basing your opinion on this film without having read the book as a precursor to seeing the motion picture.  "Testament Of Youth" seems more about seeing how much it can beat up on its own heroine before someone from the audience screams "Uncle". 

Vera certainly comes across as virtuous, that's no doubt.  Further, the fact that she was able to -- at least to some degree -- survive The War To End All Wars relatively intact (despite having suffered many psychological and emotional scars) is also nothing short of admirable.  But the bigger story here is what she made of that experience and what she did with her life as a result; sadly, it comes across as nothing more than an afterthought in "Testament Of Youth", tacked on at the last few minutes near the end of the movie.  The real tragedy here is not so much the story that was told, but instead, the story that went untold in this film. 

Testament of Youth (2014) on IMDb

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