English writer Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir, Testament Of Youth, is widely beloved, an account of the bestselling author’s various accomplishments and hardships during WWI. There’s a good movie in Brittain’s story, but you wouldn’t know it from this lethargic, BBC-produced bore.
The film opens on Armistice Day in 1918, as a clearly distraught Vera (Alicia Vikander) makes her way through jubilant crowds toward a church. Once inside, she thinks back to four years earlier, when she gamboled around her countryside home with her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), her friend Victor (Colin Morgan), and the eventual love of her life, Roland Leighton (Kit Harington).
Vera is a headstrong sort, and the early parts of the film mainly have to do with convincing her old-fashioned father (Dominic West) to allow her to sit for the entrance exams to Somerville College at Oxford. The newspaper headlines, however, are hinting at a dark future for Vera, far from the halls of academia. (The assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand will do that to a girl.) Soon enough, the boys are all off to war and our heroine defers her educational and marital hopes to become an attending nurse for wounded soldiers.
From there, Testament Of Youth plods along dutifully from tragedy to tragedy, as almost everyone Vera loves is taken from her, and the horrible sights she witnesses push her toward a more outspokenly pacifist point of view. There should be some charge to witnessing the character’s slow moral awakening, but director James Kent barely gives the material a pulse. Combat action is mostly absent, though this seems less an artistic choice than a penny-pinching shortcut. Instead, Kent and his cinematographer Rob Hardy convey the horrors of war by contrasting overly pretty shots of verdant fields or shafts of light streaming through windows with Vera’s set-bound adventures among those mangled on the battlefield.
The rain machine certainly gets a workout once Vera gets within spitting distance of the front, and Kent even shamelessly recreates the famous battlefield crane shot from Gone With The Wind. (The effect is in no way the same.) All the young actors do what they can with these broadly sketched types, though Vikander mostly seems to be channeling Keira Knightley at her most Oscar-baiting. Sadder is the film’s waste of both Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson in supporting roles. Watson plays Vera’s mother, and has barely anything to do beyond being a prim scold. Richardson, playing an Oxford headmistress, at least has a moving moment where she learns of her soldier brother’s death, but Kent cuts away from the scene too quickly, undermining this great actress’ attempt to lend depth to what is, overall, a very hollow enterprise.