Lawrence Toppman

‘Testament of Youth’ looks back with sorrow at World War I

Left to right: Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain and Kit Harington as Roland Leighton Photo by Laurie Sparham, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics 'Testament of Youth'
Left to right: Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain and Kit Harington as Roland Leighton Photo by Laurie Sparham, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics 'Testament of Youth' Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classi

Wilfred Owen, greatest of war poets and a casualty of World War I, summed up that futile conflict in “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.” The angel sent by God orders Abraham to spare Isaac and “Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him./ But the old man would not so, but slew his son,/ And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

That feeling of oppressive sadness, of colossal waste on the battlefields of France and the Low Countries, lifts “Testament of Youth” above the ranks of generically touching war movies.

Vera Brittain was 40 when she wrote her memoir of The Great War in 1933. By then, she had become a pacifist – an unpopular thing, with Nazis soon to march across Europe – who nursed German prisoners during the first war and felt connected to all humanity.

That 600-page book became a five-hour BBC miniseries in 1979, nine years after Brittain died. (She lived just long enough to see the Vietnam War at its height.) Now it has been compressed by director James Kent and writer Juliette Towhidi into two hours. Their film inevitably seems rushed – one key relationship gets dealt with far too quickly – but it makes a strong cumulative effect.

Alicia Vikander plays Vera with a mixture of spunk, guarded humor, occasional preachiness (this early feminist could get on people’s nerves) and dedication to causes, whether getting through Oxford University or comforting dying soldiers.

Not counting her father (Dominic West), who expects her to marry and run a household, she interacts with three important men in this version of her story: Fiancé Roland (Kit Harington), close friend Victor (Colin Morgan) and brother Edward (Taron Egerton). The war treats each differently but none well, and events shape her anger toward war itself.

Men march off with blithe ignorance in 1914-’15. “How many generations get a chance to be part of something like this?” one asks. “Home leave makes you soft,” says another. Even Vera, illusions intact, thinks her father should allow Edward to enlist: “Let him be a man.” By Armistice Day in 1918, as she walks alone through a crowd, she thinks differently, and we can see she always will.

What might have seemed like melodrama in fiction passes muster here; if it comes from the memoir, as I assume it does, we can’t argue with the timing of events. Victor does drift in and out abruptly, and what must have been an important relationship in Vera’s life seems like another opportunity to make a dramatic point.

Yet the film accumulates telling details. Vera smears herself with mud in sympathy with men on the battlefield; dust gathers on the piano in her parents’ drawing room, symbol of a genteel life that’s gone forever. About 17 million people died in this foolish conflict, while 20 million were wounded – half the seed, indeed, of The Lost Generation.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Testament of Youth

Vera Brittain’s autobiography about coming of age in England during World War I reaches the screen, in an adaptation by Juliette Towhidi.

STARS: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton.

DIRECTOR: James Kent.

RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes.

RATING: PG-13 (thematic material including bloody and disturbing war related images).