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'Testament of Youth' review: War account lacks intensity

Alicia Vikander of "Ex Machina" stars in tasteful adaptation of the World War I memoir.

In the tasteful, slightly clenched new version of "Testament of Youth," you sense the filmmakers struggling with how much, or how little, to acknowledge the pacifist ideals that guided author Vera Brittain's 1933 memoir of World War I as she pulled the book from her own experience.

World War II rendered Brittain's mournful remembrance unfashionable in its conclusions that the human cost of such carnage cannot be politically justified. By the time Brittain died in 1970, her star had faded. Then the book was reprinted, successfully. A five-part 1979 BBC-TV miniseries connected with the British public. And now we have a new film version, scripted by Juliette Towhidi and directed by first-time feature helmsman James Kent.

Vera's played by Alicia Vikander, lately of "Ex Machina," and unlike her eerily ambiguous performance there, this one has many of the surface strengths and limitations of the film itself. Towhidi's adaptation begins in late 1918 with a clamorous Armistice Day celebration. Vera fights against the crowds, just as she fought against so much conventional wisdom of the time. She's fleeing the mob, seeking some peace and solace. The rest of the picture lays out exactly why, in an extended four-year flashback.

Against the initial wishes of her parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson), Vera attends Somerville College at Oxford at a time when women weren't allowed university degrees. Miranda Richardson is fearsomely icy as her Oxford overlord, though as the war breaks out and then grinds on, no one can claim immunity from its ravages. "Testament of Youth" charts the fortunes of Vera's brother, Edward (Taron Egerton); Edward's friend, Roland (Kit Harington), who becomes Vera's fiance; and another friend, Victor (Colin Morgan), pining for Vera but maintaining a brave facade even as his heart is fracturing.

What happens to these men, and to Vera, isn't really a matter of spoilers, but for our purposes, let's simply say that "Testament of Youth" came from a blasted place in author Brittain's life. "If the war spares me," she wrote to her brother in 1915, "it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book the story of us four."

Like its source material, director Kent's film becomes a story of a woman who commits herself to serving as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, where she treats frontline near-casualties of horrific trench warfare, both British and hun. In the memoir itself Brittain wrote: "Between 1914 and 1919 young men and women, disastrously pure in heart and unsuspicious of elderly self-interest and cynical exploitation, were continually re-dedicating themselves" to the belief that some good would come out of all the loss and pain.

Kent and company focus on the romantic element, at the partial expense of Vera's other lives. This isn't the BBC miniseries; few of the conversations, in other words, go on for any length of time, or into any serious political or ideological detail. And there's something missing in an otherwise handsomely mounted and carefully maintained adaptation. Vera, as written and as acted, remains a sympathetic and watchful conduit, a peg, rather than a vividly realized engine. We see everything she endures, and all she sacrifices. Yet we are not left with lingering impressions beyond the facts of a fascinating life.

Kent manages some artful and effective compositions, such as the overhead shot of endless rows of stretchers bearing wounded and dead soldiers — though here, too, we have a paradox. We admire the staging and the execution of such a shot. But it's more about modestly budgeted technical prowess than indelible emotional impact.

Phillips is a Tribune Newspapers critic.

mjphillips@tribpub.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

"Testament of Youth" - 2.5 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including bloody and disturbing war-related images)

Running time: 2:09

Opens: Friday

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