Sentimental and Clichéd
There’s little doubt that 2015 is the year that brought us Alicia Vikander, but Testament of Youth is not the movie to do it. Vikander, a 26-year-old Swedish actress and former ballet dancer, was all but born to play the android Ava in Ex Machina – her face, almost inhumanly flawless, boasts a kind of otherworldly, impenetrable beauty that made Ava both alluring and inscrutable. But that very quality, which holds viewers at a distance, as though we are looking more at a mask than a face, is what renders her ill-suited to play Vera Brittain, the scholarly heroine at the center of Testament of Youth.
It’s not for lack of trying. As Vera, a wealthy young Englishwoman whose 1933 memoir chronicled the ruin that befell the members of the ‘Lost Generation’ during WWI, Vikander does her best to evoke the fragility, stubbornness, and burgeoning intellect of a girl coming of age under horrific circumstances. But, in spite of her efforts, she cannot overcome herself; instead of providing a window into Vera’s psyche, as an autobiography is intended to, she remains aloof, merely a character in the story rather than its narrator. It doesn’t help that the script, which was adapted by Juliette Towhidi, often eschews the conventions of human speech for ungainly and overly assertive declarations of theme (when a principal at Oxford condescends to Vera, she responds, “You think I’m frivolous, a provincial upstart, but I’m not.”)
Nor does it help that the role of Roland Leighton, a poet as well as Vera’s fiancée, went to Kit Harington (known best as the dreamy if somewhat stunted Jon Snow on HBO’s Game of Thrones). Harington is another performer who, like Vikander, has been tossed into a role for which he is not equipped. What the two have going for them is youth and beauty; what they do not have going for them, and which is essential for these characters, is anything resembling a literary disposition. It is difficult, if not impossible, to take Harington seriously as a precocious, romantic intellectual, in the same way that we cannot fathom Vikander producing Vera’s exacting prose.
But, with youth and beauty on their side, Vikander and Harington do manage to successfully recreate their characters’ blissful infatuation. This is also where the director, James Kent, excels. In the film’s most graceful sequence, Kent depicts their courtship as a series of harmless and humorous attempts to evade their chaperone, all set to composer Max Richter’s lovely score. Indeed, Kent has a knack for innocence. He and his cinematographer, Rob Hardy, convey the pre-war serenity with a camera that continually gazes upward, roaming freely as the sunlight streams through the branches. The perspective changes, becoming noticeably more downcast and static, as optimism fades to tragedy.
These flourishes aside, Kent’s direction is able if unexceptional. A veteran of television, he fails to capitalize on film’s more expansive and inventive opportunities; he tells a coherent narrative, but it’s not enough to enter the ranks of more accomplished war movies. One longs for the technical wizardry and epic scale of Joe Wright’s exquisite 2007 film Atonement, which portrayed with greater urgency both romantic desperation and the horrors of war. In comparison, Testament of Youth‘s scenes of suffering in the medical tent feel almost quaint.
Kent regains his footing toward the end, in the quiet moments where the cavernous sense of loss comes to a head: a bike messenger leisurely delivering a fateful telegram; a brief survey of the bucolic locales, now empty, in which we first watched our characters frolic. It is here that the movie most resonantly conveys Vera’s notions of emptiness and futility, the notions that fueled her nascent pacifism. Pity, then, that we must conclude with an impromptu speech at a post-war rally in which she outlines this nascent pacifism in broad strokes. The timing is forced and the delivery underwhelming, and it represents Kent’s and Vikander’s greatest failures: Kent’s, as he succumbs to sentimentality and cliché, and Vikander’s, as she proves herself, once again, to be outmatched by the real Vera Brittain.