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REVIEW: TESTAMENT OF YOUTH Is Thoughtful Pondering On The Futility Of War

Superheroes aren’t just born – they’re made. Vera Brittain wasn’t born a hero. She became one after the first World War robbed her of many of the loves of her life. Director James Kent’s TESTAMENT OF YOUTH is the feminist icon’s true-life superhero origin story. The exquisitely-lensed coming-of-age tale is about love, loss and lots of pensive reflection. It takes a fascinating and noticeably different path to showcasing all aspects of war that’s genuinely evocative of the heroine’s spirit. That said, the picture’s energy comes in fits and starts and inhabits dreary lulls for far too long.

It’s 1914 in the gorgeous English countryside when we first meet sassy, spirited Vera (Alicia Vikander) frolicking in nature with her brother Ted (Taron Egerton) and his friend Victor (Colin Morgan), who has puppy dog eyes for her. On that same spring day her conservative father (Dominic West) and flighty mother (Emily Watson) gift her with a piano instead of funding her Oxford education pipe-dream – something that screams “domesticity” above her own personal desires. An argument ensues with her parents, and she staunchly declares she’s never getting married. Sure enough, she soon meets her soulmate in struggling poet Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington, who constantly looks like he’s two steps away from a crying jag in this film). However, once the war breaks out and most of the young men in her life enlist, Vera’s hopes and dreams for a happy future with Roland are vanquished. Favoring life lessons versus classroom ones, she becomes a nurse to be closer to her loves – only destiny has something bigger in store for her.

Though narratively it’s fraught with loads of stuffy Brit melodramatics, visually Vera’s world is a place I could easily get lost in, thanks mostly to Rob Hardy’s subtly smoky and sultry cinematography. Next to Vikander’s outstanding performance (she’s never nothing less than phenomenal), it’s one of the handful of reasons why you should see this film. Production designer Jon Henson’s eye for period detail also comes into play in this immersive experience. Scenery (like the lake the trio swam in, the beach they walked along and the fields Vera and Roland rolled around in) augment the picture’s atmosphere and take on a somber, sobering resonance at the film’s end. It’s also completely beguiling to see a war movie that features no warfare sequences. We see some soldiers in the trenches getting ready for battle, and that’s about it. The brutal aftermath – the spilt blood, the mud-caked carcasses, the frenetic fray – is what speaks more powerfully. The “show, don’t tell” rule is observed and revered. Seeing symbolism (like the water, Vera’s white dress and flowers) feels like it’s material from her novel translated beautifully for cinematic scale.

Now for the bad, of which there’s simply too much to ignore. Momentum dies during the heroine’s thoughtful stillness when she’s processing how to make sense of war in the overly bulky second act. Great for character building, but bad for pacing. The story, much like our protagonist, struggles to find itself after that. Vera’s tale of woe also becomes ploddingly predictable and leads to unanswered questions about her motivations. Why does she assume her pain is singular? Why exactly does she differ/ subvert her wants for an education to work as nurse? She’ll need that education later on, no? Things turn dreary and dull once one of the film’s main draws dies after the 40 minute mark. And unfortunately for everyone, the energy doesn’t pick back up until the final ten minutes – in a place where most of us would like to have seen the tale begin.

3 out 5

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH opened in limited release on June 5.

 

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