Monday, June 01, 2015

Testament of Youth: Vera Brittain Witnesses WWI

Fortunately for Vera Brittain, Hitler also had it in for pacifists. News that she was in the National Socialist’s infamous “Black Book” of prominent citizens to be immediately detained on the event of a successful German occupation provided her a lot of cover. It is important to remember she came by her pacifism honestly, witnessing the horrors of the WWI. As a V.A.D. nurse, Brittain will see her generation decimated by war, including all those nearest to her in James Kent’s adaptation of her enduring memoir, Testament of Youth (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

With name like hers, Vera Brittain sounds like the perfect spokesperson for King and Country propaganda. Instead she would become a tireless campaigner for pacifism, feminism, and the failed League of Nations. However, she started on the same page as her contemporaries. In fact, it was she who interceded on behalf of her brother Edward to convince their father to allow his enlistment. She will soon bitterly regret it, but at the time she thought she had to return the favor. After all, Edward had helped convince Mr. Brittain to allow her to study at Oxford, at a time when it was considered rather counter-productive for a socially presentable young woman.

Through her brother, Vera Brittain meets her future fiancé, poet Roland Leighton. This leaves their old chum Victor Richardson as the odd man out, first rejected by Vera (for whom he had long held a torch) and then initially disqualified by the armed forces on physical grounds. Much to her unease, Leighton is readily accepted into service. When the war drags on, just as Mr. Brittain feared, Richardson eventually becomes more than fit enough for duty. Wishing to do her part too, Vera Brittain volunteers as a nurse. She will be spared the trenches, but she will still see a lifetime’s worth of carnage.

Trench warfare was just no way to conduct a war. After watching Testament, Water Diviner, or any film about WWI, viewers will never begrudge the use of drones by coalition forces in Afghanistan ever again. Of course, anyone who knows his Hemingway or Remarque knows the general trajectory of Testament, but seeing the inevitable tragedy play out over the course of the war is quite compelling. The running time of one hundred twenty-nine minutes is a tad long, but Kent (whose extensive television credits include Inside Men and The White Queen) crafts some wonderfully fragile little moments, coaxing deeply felt performances from the accomplished ensemble.

Alicia Vikander is perfectly suited to Kent’s sensitive but restrained approach. We can practically see and feel her internalizing all of Brittain’s guilt, grief, and anguish. Despite his early bluster, Dominic West (who played a shell-shocked WWI veteran in The Awakening) has some quietly devastating moments as Mr. Brittain, who understands war well enough to fear for the worst. The Oxford lads all largely look and sound alike, but Colin Morgan really put in the time and effort researching war blindness to convincingly portray Richardson.

Clearly, his years toiling in TV have honed Kent’s instincts. He nimbly tip toes around potential schmaltz, but still delivers the expected quota of emotion. The scene showcasing Leighton’s celebrated battlefield poem “Villanelle” is a fitting case in point. Dialing down the soaring strings and rending of garments, Kent simply allows viewers to connect with his words and the images of his final war-torn days.

Suddenly more commercial than anyone probably expected thanks to Vikander’s career momentum generated by Ex Machina, Testament should well satisfy fans of classy British costume dramas and historical romances. An elegant production, Testament of Youth is recommended for literate audiences when it opens this Friday (6/5) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.