Here’s how you create a pacifist.
Show her a world of beauty, promise and expectations.
Give her a brother she loves and gentleman callers who vie for her attention.
And then start a war, the silliest and most tragic war of all. Have her talk her father into letting that beloved brother join his mates in enlisting.
“It’ll be a short war. Let him be a man!”
That’s how the memoirist and novelist Vera Brittain became a pacifist. We see that process play out in the new film of her acclaimed account of civilian life during World War I, “Testament of Youth.”
It’s a quiet, thoughtful and handsomely mounted film, offering another plum role to Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina”) as Brittain. Vikander and the film take Britain, and Brittain, from idealism and hope to grim reality and regret.
The story is framed within the Armistice Day celebrations of 1918. Everyone is smiling, celebrating. Not Vera. She ducks into a church, spies a painting and thinks back before the war, before all that she and everyone she knows lost.
Vera, a nascent feminist, had plans of becoming a writer, joining her brother at college. After he enlists, she goes through with those plans. But she comes to hold in contempt all those who insist on life as normal, while the flowers of youth of Europe were dying by the thousands, pretty much daily, on the fields of Flanders. She fumes at patriotic fervor, and later at calls for post-war revenge on the Germans who started it.
Prewar, she snapped “I don’t want a husband. I’m not getting married. Not now, not ever,” to family (Dominic West and Emily Watson) and friends. She rebuffs the attentions of one possible beau but falls for another. And then he enlists, with tragic results.
British TV director James Kent confines his depictions of the Great War to close-ups of muddied faces in muddied trenches, to blood-stained hospitals where Vera joins up as a nurse.
She grapples with the dying and wounded, and sees apparitions of the dead. She witnesses the changes in friends and family when they’re home on leave.
The “true” story here has its moments of eye-rolling melodrama. The supporting players, while perhaps familiar to British TV viewers, are a rather colorless lot – white, posh, same hair colors, same upper-middle-class manners.
But Vikander creates a compelling portrait of a “privileged provincial upstart” who has her eyes opened. She and Kent conjure up a before-and-after picture of Britain that explains all the hardening of attitudes about “patriotic” wars, the weariness that made them avoid a second World War for so long and the rise of people like Vera Brittain, a writer with the clear eyes and writing talent to take it all in and make sense of the senseless slaughter and resolve to never be a party to such a thing again.
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