Youthful Folly, by David Bax
In movies, when a young, high society woman scandalizes her family by declaring, “I don’t want a husband!”, it’s a sure thing that she’ll fall in love by the time the credits roll. Minor spoiler alert here but Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander), the protagonist of James Kent’s Testament of Youth and the real woman who wrote the memoir on which the film is based, is no exception. Yet despite having a passionate love story at its center, the film is no romance. Rather, it’s a sometimes potent but more often clumsy examination of the strength of a woman and the devastation of war even among those who never saw battle.
Brittain is an exceptionally bright young woman whose parents (Emily Watson and Dominic West) are nevertheless set on marrying her off and against the idea of sending her to Oxford as is her desire. But her brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), is on her side – Testament has as much interesting in its sibling relationship as its romantic one – and eventually the parents are convinced. In the meantime, Vera meets Edwards’s friend, Roland (Kit Harington), a dashing young man who is as intelligent and sensitive as Vera is. It’s not long before they are in love and it’s not much longer than that before World War I breaks out and takes both Roland and Edward to France to fight. Despite her devotion to her education, Vera feels an even stronger pull to help her countrymen and becomes a nurse tending to the war’s wounded.
So the film is decidedly more than a moony, costumed love story. But it doesn’t look like it. Everything appears to have been shot through a layer of gauze or perhaps a piece of Vikander’s dainty wardrobe. And it doesn’t help the audience to take things seriously when two characters who need to have a private conversation feel that they’d better first walk over to a picturesque gazebo on order to do so.
Meanwhile, the dialogue has all the subtlety of a gong being struck. Vera’s well-meaning critique of Roland’s poetry – “I couldn’t find you in it” – makes her sound like a reality show judge. And we learn that war has broken out when one character declares, “Ah, a newspaper!” and that paper says “WAR” across the front page.
Assuming that’s not too subtle to count as foreshadowing, that moment speaks to Testament‘s other main problem. For a true story, it’s remarkably heavy on melodrama, eventually becoming predictable and tired in its foreshadow/payoff loop.
Kent gets closer to the heart of his protagonist the closer she gets to the war. Eventually she moves from treating casualties who have returned to England to treating those freshly wounded, dismembered, blinded and dying just behind the front lines in France. The war becomes a kiln in which she finds her true shape. Before she leaves, she has a discussion about grief with her headmistress, who has already lost family to the war. When she eventually returns to school, and has lost much and many herself, there’s far more weight to what they don’t say. Too much of Testament of Youth indulges in thin grandeur, like the crane shot of wounded and dead that is a direct homage to Gone with the Wind. But under all that fluff and haze is a strong story of the women of the First World War, who did more than just wait and mourn but still had far too much waiting and mourning to do.