“Testament of Youth,” the movie based on the memoir by Vera Britain who served as a volunteer nurse during World War I, might have been made in the ’50’s - so dated are its characters, its setting, its cinematography and its music which never fails to swell. In glorious Technicolor, there are more close-ups of the lovely Alicia Vikander than a family album - most with that same determined look that signals she is a person to be reckoned with. The dialogue is replete with such trenchant and insightful lines as ‘I want to write,” and “You must write!” uttered to our heroine after reading one of her youthful poems. The personal conflict consists of whether this feisty young Edwardian woman will get to go to Oxford and whether she will allow herself to fall in love after proclaiming that she has no wish to marry - ever. You will guess the answers to both without bothering to buy a ticket but in fairness, the movie draws us into the beautiful English countryside, the comfortable world of the affluent and the extremely photogenic actors with their perfectly clipped British accents. It then zeroes in on the newspaper headline of the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination and we know where we are headed.
Of course World War I upsets all of the characters’ plans in much the same way we’ve seen in older and better movies such as “Gone With the Wind” and “A Farewell to Arms” both of which had similar accoutrements, much better screenplays and one different war. Some people rise to the occasion with patriotism, bravery and dedication; others fall apart when the cook departs and prattle on about the dearth of eggs and cream. We are in the comfort zone of television for most of this film, making us wonder whether the memir itself was this simplistic or whether this was the director’s choice to guarantee audience appeal. Compared to the many brilliant war films that we have seen since “Paths of Glory,” this movie registers about 2 out of 10 for hitting us in our core and 9 out of 10 for sprinkling recycled conventional thought and footage on a generation that grew up with much stronger stuff on tv news broadcasts.
Vera’s mother and father are played by Emily Watson and Dominic West in a shabby waste of two actors who have shown the capacity to electrify us in many other roles. A special nod must go to the milliner who deisgned the ubiquitous hats worn by Vera and her mother - they are artful and flattering and make one long for a return to that epoch when no head was complete without some sort of crown. Despite its tightly limited range, the movie manages to drag, making us feel guilty for being bored by a brutal war. Fortunately, the sophomoric speech about pacifism at the end assuages our guilt and assures us that the fault is not in these stars (nor our perceptions) but in the formulaic way that they have been presented.
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