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Testament of Youth
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by alejandroariera

"From Heaven to Hell and Back Again"
4 stars

“Testament of Youth” is one of the many movies, TV specials and books released last year to commemorate the centenary of World War I, an anniversary that almost went unnoticed in the United States even though many Americans lost their lives in the conflict. The film arrives on our shores a couple of weeks before the PBS broadcast of the six-part series “The Crimson Field” produced by the BBC. But while the latter depicts this war’s sheer brutality from the perspective of the medics and nurses in the front lines, “Testament of Youth” is about how one woman was changed by the war. I have yet to see “The Crimson Field” (premiering nationwide, Sunday June 21st), but I suspect both will complement each other rather well. On its own, the film adaptation of Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir stands as a unique portrayal of a war that marked the beginning of a never-ending cycle of worldwide conflicts whose effects we still feel today.

As the film opens, we see Vera (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) walk, dazed and in shock, amidst a crowd celebrating the end of the war. She walks into a church and stands in front of a painting, which sparks her memories of what has transpired these past four years. Vera and her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) are the offspring of a wealthy industrialist (Dominic West) in Derbyshire, England. Vera wants to go to Oxford; her father and mother (Emily Watson) want her to be the perfect, pianoforte-playing wife. She will have none of it and rashly declares that she will never marry as her brother’s best friend Roland (Kit Harington from “Game of Thrones”) walks into the room. Vera and Roland soon develop a rapport; they both love poetry and know how to fool Vera’s chaperone during their outings together.

Edward intervenes in Vera’s behalf and her father relents. But the winds of war soon begin to blow and while Vera is accepted at Oxford, Roland decides to do his patriotic duty and enroll. Besides, he is convinced, as are many young British soldiers, that the war won’t last long. Vera also feels the call of duty and abandons her studies at Oxford to train as a nurse. It isn’t easy at first. She is not used to the sight of blood. But she overcomes her fears. Her best friend Victor (Colin Morgan), who still has a crush on her, and Edward also enlist and she eventually joins them in the front lines, specifically a hospital in Etaples, France, where she finally comes face to face with the horrors of war. Men are wounded, and some are maimed for life; those who aren’t, are sent back to the battlefield once they are mended, like her brother Edward. Yet, somehow, Vera never loses her strength and compassion, even when she deals with some personal losses. She, in one haunting scene, gives comfort to a mortally wounded German soldier, pretending to be his girlfriend while cradling him in her arms.

Director James Kent and scriptwriter Juliette Towhidi avoid showing us the battlefield action and the film is so much powerful for it. This is Vera’s story, after all. The sight of amputated limbs, the screams of these wounded men and a spectacular crane shot —in a wonderful tribute to “Gone with the Wind”— showing a muddy field covered with the bodies of these crippled soldiers lying on their stretchers as they are brought in from the Battle of the Somme, are more than enough to convey the horror and impact of war. So does the earlier sight of a somber Roland sitting alone on a British beach during a brief leave, unwilling to speak to Vera, building a wall around himself in the first signs of shellshock. That he dies later in battle, days before he marries Vera, should come as no surprise. World War I spared no one.

James Kent brings to his feature film debut a poetic sensibility and a sense of intimacy that is very rare in a war film. The idyllic English countryside scenes are bathed in a soft light and sometimes shot in slow motion while the hospital and front line sequences are hazy, muddy, oppressive. Kent’s makes good use of his background as a documentary filmmaker in the second half of the film, giving his hospital scenes a “you are there” immediacy with its frantic handheld shots.

The cast is spot-on, even in the smaller roles. As Vera’s advisor in Oxford, Miranda Richardson may have about ten minutes of screen time but how glorious they are especially when her strict, sarcastic scholar crumbles in Vera’s arms after receiving news of a loved one’s death in the battlefield. The scene packs quite a punch in its quiet, understated delivery. Even a role as seemingly unimportant as Vera’s chaperone is well observed, full of rich detail.

But “Testament of Youth" belongs to Vikander who seems to be omnipresent in our screens these days thanks to the quirks of the movie industry’s distribution system (she is the android in “Ex Machina” and will soon be seen in “Man from U.N.C.L.E.”). As Vera she is a force of nature: determined, willful, at times impatient, but altogether, brave. It’s a role that requires Vikander to express a wide variety of emotions, to show us a woman who is in the process of growing up, of maturing. Her performance is subtle, powerful, intelligent. She takes us on a journey. It’s, without a doubt, one of the best performances of the year.

“Testament of Youth” goes from light to darkness, from the superfluous to the tragic, from heaven to hell and back again. It brings to life a woman’s voice, whose experience and outlook are as relevant today as a century ago. It does so without pomp and circumstance, and with a lot of respect and conviction.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=28971&reviewer=434
originally posted: 06/10/15 22:25:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.

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10/04/15 G. Really great 4 stars
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