From first to last, "Testament of Youth" sweeps you away. Unapologetically emotional and impeccably made in the classic manner, it tells the kind of potent, many-sided story whose unforeseen complexities can come only courtesy of a life that lived them all.
Based on Vera Brittain's deeply felt 1933 memoir of her World War I experiences, a modern classic that has never gone out of print and kept Virginia Wolfe up all night reading it, "Testament of Youth" is an attempt to write history in terms of personal life that is wrenched out of its author's very soul. Only that way, Brittain wrote, "could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the War."
Brittain's trademark fiery intensity and passionate attitude have been transferred intact to this film (finely adapted by screenwriter Juliette Towhidi and feelingly directed by James Kent) which seems to breathe with the writer's internal essence.
Key to that success is the all-out performance by Sweden's Alicia Vikander, very much the actress of the moment after her charismatic work as the enigmatic Ava in "Ex Machina." She's thrown herself into this project unreservedly and pulled everyone else — including Kit Harington, Taron Egerton and Colin Morgan, the actors who play the men in her life — along with her.
While Vikander's role in "Ex Machina" was a model of artifice and restraint, here she takes off in an opposite direction, playing a more high-spirited if equally determined young woman, an impetuous spitfire who embraces life without hesitation.
Yet when we first encounter Brittain, she is in a daze, her haunted face looking straight ahead and filling the screen. It is Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice Day, and the London street she's on is erupting in unrestrained jubilation. The end of the first world war, however, has come too late for this young woman, has left her, she fears, with no reason to go on living.
"Testament of Youth" then flashes back to 1914, only four years past but eons ago in terms of who Brittain was and how she thought her life would proceed.
The setting is Derbyshire, where Brittain, her adored younger brother Edward (Egerton) and his Oxford friend Victor (Morgan), are swimming in a lake near the Brittain family home. Young, handsome, laughing and teasing, these individuals in the full blush of youth have no idea how fragile their world is, no notion that they are about to become a lost generation.
Director Kent, a British television veteran making his first theatrical feature, has not only seen to it that the film's period re-creation is done with great care, he's had specific ideas of how he wanted "Testament" to be shot.
Working with experienced cinematographer Rob Hardy (who shot "Ex Machina" as well as "The Invisible Woman" and part of the "Red Riding" trilogy), West has gone for an intimate approach that immerses us in the story with Brittain, encouraging us to go through what she is going through at the moment it's happening.
The young woman's spirit is visible almost immediately, as she clashes with her parents (canny veterans Emily Watson and Dominic West) over her dream of being a rare female student at Oxford's Somerville College, a situation her parents are opposed to because it might make her a potentially unmarriageable bluestocking.
No sooner, however, does Brittain insist she never wants to marry anyone than another of her brother's Oxford friends, handsome, sensitive Roland Leighton (Harington, Jon Snow in "Game of Thrones") walks in the door. The connection between them is immediately clear, but this is not going to be easy.
As the kerfuffle about Brittain applying to Oxford underlines, women's lives were unimaginably constrained only 100 years ago. As a young woman, Brittain needs to be chaperoned when she's out in public, especially when a potential suitor like Leighton appears. Difficult as that limitation was for the couple, it leads to extremely romantic cinema, as even the most casual joining of fingers becomes electric with furtive passion.
In the background of all of this, visible in random newspaper headlines, is the inexorable buildup to world war. Suddenly everyone's lives get very serious very fast, and one by one all the young men in Brittain's life, drawn by an unthinking combination of patriotism and naiveté, volunteer for what they think will be a few months of military service.
The reality of war, however, proved to be catastrophically different, and Brittain herself, unable to concentrate on anything else in her life, volunteers to be a nurse. She eventually ends up at Etaples, a hospital in France close to the front lines, where the monstrous extent of the carnage she sees is almost too much to bear.
One of Brittain's goals in writing "Testament of Youth" was to show, "without any polite disguise, the agony of war to the individual, and the destructiveness to the human race." And though she ended the conflict "with my deepest emotions paralyzed if not dead," her life, as it turns out, was far from over.
What makes Vera Brittain's story so exceptional is the fluid way all these elements in her life, the passionate feminism, the love story, the war years and what they led to, naturally flow together. The "Testament of Youth" we see is an exceptional romance, but it is a romance with a considerable amount on its mind, a romance with lessons for our time as much as for hers.
'Testament of Youth'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material including bloody and disturbing war related images.
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Playing Arclight Hollywood, Landmark, West Los Angeles