A Strong Central Performance Elevates A Pacifist's Story

Jun 4, 2015

Vera Brittain, an upper-crust Englishwoman whose experiences as a nurse in World War I turned her into a pacifist, was known to my generation primarily as the mother of Shirley Williams, a similarly feisty and beloved Labour Cabinet member who still sits in the House of Lords. To my parents' generation, Brittain was the beloved author of a best-selling 1933 memoir, Testament of Youth, which laid out in devastating detail the cruel obliteration of a whole generation of British youth, to say nothing of Brittain's own dreams of marriage to Roland Leighton, a budding writer and poet like herself.

Like the great poets of that war — Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, among others — Brittain came from privilege: She was the daughter of wealthy paper mill owners. But her memoir, published between the Wars in 1933, spoke to the masses in a less literary, more direct and personal voice that crossed England's powerful class barrier. Testament of Youth, which dealt with the loss of three crucial young men in Brittain's life and her transformation from cosseted girl to ardent pacifist, was adapted into an excellent 1979 BBC TV series starring the great actress Cheryl Campbell (Pennies From Heaven). There's not much reason for a remake, and director James Kent, who has mostly worked in television, has brought the book to the big screen in a faithful but mostly pedestrian period piece.

Luckily, the film is pepped by a passionate turn from up-and-coming Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, last seen as a democratically inclined freshman Queen of Denmark in A Royal Affair, and as the savvy Kitty in Anna Karenina. Vikander looks like a dark-eyed Emily Blunt and carries herself with similar flash and fire. Her Vera may appear breakable, but she's a sturdy rebel who doesn't suffer fools gladly. We meet her in full brat mode in 1914, lobbying her unwilling father (an under-used Dominic West) and etiquette-obsessed mother (Emily Watson) to let her study at Oxford alongside her adored brother Edward (Taron Egerton), her sensitive fiancé Roland (Kit Harington), and their friend Victor (Colin Morgan), a good-hearted fellow who also pines for Vera.

The young men barely graze Oxford before signing up for what they believe will be a quick victory over the Hun. Disillusion sets in fast as they rot and worse in the stinking trenches of the Somme and other battlefields, rendered in rather crude shorthand that suggests a modest budget. As for Vera, she jettisons an elite education in favor of incrementally brutal stints as a nurse at home and abroad, where she has a formative experience nursing German prisoners.

The senseless futility of that first War, often eclipsed in popular culture by the more readily justified WWII, bears repeating. Predictably, perhaps (the movie's producers also brought us the offensively gooey Holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), Testament is sentimental and lumbering, weighed down by a dawdling pace, clumsy flashbacks, drawing-room brocades by the yard, and a score that leans heavily on a soft piano and swelling strings. Blink, and you might miss a much-needed dose of acid from Miranda Richardson as Vera's exasperated tutor at Oxford.

Still, Vikander crisply holds the screen as a naive rebel transformed by unspeakable suffering into a mature, independent young woman who remains open to the possibility of a new love and a rebuilt England. Vera Brittain never became a literary star like her Oxford buddy Winifred Holtby (Alexandra Roach), who appears in the movie to guide her shattered friend back to spiritual health. Yet from her ringside seat Vera quickly grasped that beyond the loss of her own boys, all of England, rich and poor, had lost the flower of its youth. Stripped of illusions but never cynical, Vera willingly joined in the shaping of a nascent post-War democracy that would weaken the standing of her own class. She caught the moment, then rode the wave, and Britain loved her for it. Vikander makes us see why.

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