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Family Movie Review: Testament of Youth (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 129 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. The film is about the devastation of World War I, so there are numerous characters who die, and many scenes set in battlefield hospitals, with a variety of bloody injuries: missing limbs, bullet wounds, infections, and fields of dead bodies. There’s no violence because there are no battle scenes but the focus on the aftermath is very bloody, and might be too much for queasier younger teens. Also some kissing, a shove between a dating couple, and cigarette smoking.

‘Testament of Youth,’ about the deadly toll of World War I, is a film trying to be important. Its filmmaking is well done and its cast is prestigious, but its intentions are too obvious to be fully immersive.

By Roxana Hadadi

“Testament of Youth” is being marketed as a love story, and that makes sense given how pretty its actors are. But when the film tries to pivot away from romance and toward activism and pacifism, its pacing becomes too languid, and the melodrama too overwhelming. “Testament of Youth” wants to be an important film, but it only has moments of power.

The film, based on the same-named memoir of respected pacifist Vera Brittain, is about the horrific impact of World War I on British youth, specifically on the life of the rich and privileged Vera (Alicia Vikander, of “Seventh Son”). The daughter of a paper factory owner, Vera rebels against her parents’ plans for her to marry early, instead plotting with her younger brother and best friend Edward (Taron Egerton) to end up at Oxford University together. Obsessed with literature and poetry, Vera wants to be a writer, and sitting around her parents’ provincial estate, waiting to be married off, is not in her interests.

Edward is already in boarding school, preparing for a life in the military, when he brings his friends around to meet Vera: The quieter, immediately smitten Victor (Colin Morgan) and the combative, more challenging Roland (Kit Harington, of “Pompeii”). When Vera fights with her parents and throws all her books and essays out the window, Roland comes to help collect them, but not for Vera’s benefit: “It’s the books I’m worried about,” he jokes. Nevertheless, there is an antagonism between them that turns to attraction, and soon they’re pen pals, and then they’re writing poems about each other and falling in love. It’s beautiful—and then World War I starts.

Edward pleads with Vera to convince their father to let him go, and she does, and then he’s gone. The next day, Roland announces he’s enlisted, too. And even Victor, who is at first rejected from service because of his eyesight, joins later. As everyone Vera cares about is placed directly into danger, she decides to volunteer as a nurse, and how World War I continues is the path of “Testament of Youth” takes for the remainder of the film.

While the narrative is well crafted, the script is full of so much foreshadowing that it’s easy to tell where the film will go: “I’m not getting married!” Vera proclaims, right as Roland walks through the door into their home. “He was born to make his mark on the world,” one character says of another, who of course ends up dying. “At least I have the comfort of knowing you’re all safe on English soil,” Vera says to her brother and his friends, but then they immediately are sent to France. The film is set up so that whenever someone says something, the exact opposite happens, and that’s an easy pattern to notice. Plus, the very crisp, intentional way with which every character speaks reminds us constantly how these are actors, and even though Vikander and Harington give particularly strong performances, the film lacks a natural feel.

Still, there are moments of beauty and power here. When Vera realizes she’s falling in love with Roland, she thinks about random parts of him, like his collarbone and his forearm, which she remembers in brief glimpses. Their first date is the film’s only humorous scene, as they run around Vera’s chaperoning aunt, walk in meandering circles to end up next to each other, and purposefully get lost in a museum together. But at the same time, Vera is provided little characterization before the war begins, so her development is always in response to things happening to her instead of things she’s doing for herself. That switch toward activism and pacifism is what defined her real life, but in the film, it’s only given a couple of scenes toward the end.

Overall, “Testament of Youth” takes its time saying something that’s fairly common knowledge: War is terrible, and facing it with talk of “honor” and “duty” doesn’t make it any less brutal. The fine performances and the memorable cinematography are nice, but can’t quite improve upon the film’s expectedness.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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