How is it that critics are always suckers for white people with British accents in twentieth century period costumes? (Please note that I say this as a completely unapologetic fan of Downton Abbey.) Relying on the strength of acting performances or the gravity of one’s source material does not make a film engaging or meaningful, which seems to be a point missed not only by the BBC’s films division but by the critical press that constantly applauds the production of the same monotonous tripe. The latest example is Testament of Youth, which is a casualty of the same over-aggrandizement that accompanied Far From the Madding Crowd last year.
Based on a memoir of the same name, the film follows the life of Vera Brittain, a young woman who fights for her right to attend school, only to have the events of the First World War completely upend her plans and set her on a track toward nursing. The character of Vera is actually pretty well realized in the form of actress Alicia Vikander, who paints Vera as a strong female lead with hopes and aspirations, but is not immune to the lures of companionship and romance and is capable of not taking herself too seriously. There are times when she slips into a melodramatic Oscar-baiting sob, but those moments are forgivable in what is otherwise a very bland production.
And quite bland it is! The crux of the narrative is in Vera’s constant confrontation with tragedy, watching her grow and develop as she gradually loses everyone she loves to the front lines. However, the film seems to miss the point of these tragedies for the purpose of the narrative and instead focuses on the tragedies themselves in order to pull out a few more tears from Vera. The point of most narrative pieces with a primary protagonist is to watch that character go through an arc, to develop and change in a way that is relatable to the audience, and while the loss of a loved one is certainly sympathetic, we don’t get much of a catharsis in watching Vera grow. The film’s final scenes pay lip service to Vera’s developed pacifism as she pleads before an audience to let the fighting end, but there was no gradual build-up to that belief or any evidence that those were the conclusions that Vera was forming up until that point.
And really, that’s all there is to say about Testament of Youth. The lead performance is decent for the material presented, but the supporting cast feels full of wasted potential as they exist solely to provide sounding boards for Vera’s speeches and objects of her mourning. Yet despite its grand posturing over a heavy subject matter, it’s a very dull film that cashes in on tragedy in order to pluck sympathy from its audience without any sense of nuance or narrative importance. It’s just a waste of time, hoping to fool you into thinking it’s a meaningful experience. I guarantee you won’t remember the film for very long after you see it, as it blurs into the malaise of all the other British historical melodramas that purport the same faux depth.