In Testament of Youth, Alicia Viksander plays Vera, a gifted and determined young British woman who overcomes the conventions of the day and the objections of her father to attend Oxford in the 1910s. In 1914, Vera’s brother, fiance and closest male friends all enlist in Britain’s WW I army. No one at the time could have imagined the industrialized carnage that WW I would become, and it’s poignant when the young men say that the war will probably be over before they’ve completed their basic training. The war is, of course, an unspeakable horror. We don’t expect the young men to fare well in the War, and they don’t. Vera suspends her Oxford education to work as a nurse, first in Britain and later at the front. She is in position to observe the effects of war both at the front and on the home front, where her parents are especially impacted.
Testament of Youth is based on Vera Brittain’s popular and influential 1933 memoir of the same name, which is also an icon of feminist literature. Brittain became a pacifist leader.
This story follows a familiar arc, and I often ask “why did someone feel the need to make this movie?”. Testament of Youth, however, is fairly compelling. Credit goes to Viksander and to director James Kent, who somehow prevent the film from slipping into an unwatchable slog of grimness.
The most impressive element of Testament of Youth is the performance of Alicia Viksander as Vera Brittain. Viksander is onscreen in every scene, often in close-up and she carries the film with a flawless performance. As good as she is here, Viksander is even better in this year’s sci-fi hit Ex Machina, where she plays a machine embedded with artificial intelligence. Ex Machina is the best American movie of the year so far.)
With Ex Machina, Viksander is exploding into cinema as a major star. Most Americans first saw the 26-year-old Swede in two 2012 movies. She played a key supporting role in Anna Karenina and a lead in the Mads Mikkelsen period drama A Royal Affair. Although I thought it too long, A Royal Affair won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Now she has five films completed or in post-production, including upcoming Derek Cianfrance film The Light Between the Oscars, co-starring Michael Fassbender, who she ihas been dating. She also has the top credit in the upcoming The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which looks wretched from the trailer. Plus, she slated to co-star with Matt Damon in the next Bourne movie. It’s quite a career trajectory, and from what I’ve seen, richly deserved.
Americans will find this odd, but the Swedish Viksander reportedly had to struggle to learn Danish for A Royal Affair. It seems especially odd, given that she speaks English with a perfect American accent in Ex Machina and perfect middle class British accent in Testament of Youth.
Back to Last Testament of Youth – it’s not a Must See, but it is a well-made and evocative treatment of the tragedy of war.