Testament of Youth, forged in the horror of war, belongs to Alicia Vikander. The 26-year-old actress may finally start seeing some of the recognition she deserves after this one. Vikander is perhaps the best unknown actress working today, but that will change. She's destined for stardom, and Testament of Youth is just the latest reason why.
Vikander deserves much of the credit for making Testament the unapologetic emotional roller coaster that it is. She's honest in ways actresses dream of and the core of a coming of age story that finds her both intoxicated and beaten down by life. But director James Kent allows the actress room to work and infuses his film with a scope that does incredible justice to its heavy source material.
Based on the bestselling autobiography of English pacifist Vera Brittain (Vikander), Testament of Youth begins in the years before World War I. Vera grows up in a wealthy family surrounded by friends and family and declares she will never marry. A budding Suffragette, Vera has plans to attend Oxford, something her father (Dominic West) deems a waste of time. Vikander, brow furried, is the personification of a stamped foot in these early scenes, an immature young woman of hubris, but also grace. She recognizes she can be abrasive and she has wonderful moments of vulnerability where we see the little girl inside her come alive.
This side of Vera bursts to the surface when she meets Roland Leighton (Kit Harington), a friend and classmate of her brother Edward (Taron Egerton). He wants to be a writer, like Vera does, and he was raised in a Suffragette household which impresses her. They connect and begin an epistolary friendship that crescendoes when Vera is accepted at Oxford, where Roland is going as well. But life has other plans. Newspapers herald the coming of World War I and in no time, Roland, Edward, and Victor (Colin Morgan), another friend, have all enlisted.
Vera, "buried in books" at Oxford patiently awaits word from her three boys. She and Roland get engaged during a visit home, and then everything changes. Tragedy strikes and Vera sees her entire world crumble. She leaves Oxford to become a nurse and is soon tending to the wounded on the front lines, including German soldiers (a savvy inclusion by screenwriter Juliette Towhidi to show the origins of Brittain's future pacifism). The young woman remains steadfast as life beats her down again and again and Vikander is never anything less than perfect.
Kent mimics Vera's emotional state with a visual style that enhances the romance of scenes. Farewells are edited with memories, single frames from the past that elicit warmth. The score, by Max Richter, has moments of dictation, but is mostly background color, enhancing things further. And the script, although dealing with themes we've seen many times (sons going to war for pride, characters judged on their place in society), remains authentic and wonderfully sad in that cinematic way.
Another big reason Testament of Youth works so well is the script focuses on those left behind in wartime, instead of the soldiers themselves. Very little fighting is actually shown. We are privvy to the aftermath, when Vera is a nurse, and to life at home during war, as Vera excruciatingly awaits word by letter of any news. Kent transitions between acts with lasting imagery that colors the film and develops Vera further as a character. While at Oxford, she sees a soldier who's lost his legs. The scene lasts a few seconds and no words are spoken, but it tells how useless Vera feels at home while the world burns outside.
Testament of Youth will move you. It's not a Hollywood picture and its devotion to the truth of Vera's story and Vikander's devotion to the truth of Vera's character bring the movie to life. The cast is excellent alongside her. Harington is a natural romantic lead and Vikander has real chemistry with him and Egerton. It's these two relationships, with her fiance and her brother, that ground Vera's story. Despite her philosophy, despite everything she endures, the film is a human story about a girl, the people she loves, and her steely resolve in the face of sheer hardship.