24 June 2015

Filmbook: "Testament of Youth" (2015)

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, Vera Brittain's memoir about World War I-era Europe, was one of my favorite books of 2011. My expectations of this movie were fairly tempered by the fact that I had heard almost nothing about it before it opened here, and because the book is always better. Still, I found in it an above-average drama that gets stronger as it goes.

Young Vera (Alicia Vikander, who you might know as the robot in "Ex Machina" but I know as Kitty in the Joe Wright "Anna Karenina") is a bookish teenager, close with her brother (Taron Edgerton) and who dreams of going to Oxford over the objections of her father (Dominic "McNulty" West). Struggling to learn Latin on her own for the Oxford entrance exam and corresponding with her brother's new handsome friend (Kit "Jon Snow" Harington) are her greatest cares. Then World War I comes and rolls through her world as a terrible storm.

One aspect of the book I truly felt the absence of in this adaptation was the first-person narration that puts Vera's emotions into context. Part of the book's power is Brittain's own admission of her own self-absorption and selfishness, which affected how she viewed the war and some of the (perhaps irresponsible) ways she behaved growing up in that maelstrom. Missing this context, it becomes easier to judge her rather than understanding how a teenager might have, for example, focused most of her war worries on her new boyfriend rather than on the injuries and deaths that would ensue. (The movie highlights in spots how truly young Brittain and her cohort was at the time, but given that Vikander is 26, Egerton is 25 and Harington is 28, they aren't actually teenagers. Hollywood!)

Once "Testament of Youth" enters those war years, though, it really hits its stride emotionally, not holding back in how the horrors are inflicted on Vera, her family and friends. A sequence set on Christmas Day stands out in my mind as a particulalry sharp moment. Absent a few scenes where she's staring into the middle distance and flashing back -- director James Kent's use of these is not so effective -- Vikander is great and Harington and West very good as well. (I also appreciated Miranda Richardson in a small role as an Oxford don.)

Verdict: Read this book -- it is an underrated classic as fresh as if it were written yesterday -- and then see the movie. Then go out and buttonhole more people to read the book.
You might like this movie if you liked: "Atonement." (Trivia: Saoirse Ronan, young Briony in "Atonement," was previously attached to play Vera in this movie.)

No comments: