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Film maintains restraint through atrocities of war

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"Testament of Youth," James Kent’s stately screen adaptation of British author Vera Brittain’s 1933 World War I memoir, evokes the march of history with a balance and restraint exhibited by few movies with such grand ambitions. Most similar films strain at the seams with bombast and sentimentality. This one, with a screenplay by Juliette Towhidi ("Calendar Girls"), is consciously old-fashioned while maintaining a sober perspective.

Rated: PG-13
Opens Friday at Kahala 8

The movie unashamedly invokes two famous scenes in Hollywood movies films set during wartime. A tearful farewell at a train station strongly echoes Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker’s parting as he goes off to fight and die in the 1944 tearjerker "Since You Went Away."

An even more conspicuous allusion is a crane shot at a French field hospital where countless wounded and dying soldiers are surveyed from above as the widening focus takes in unimaginable suffering in a sea of mud.

This powerful moment isn’t spoiled by its resemblance to a similar overhead shot of the streets of Atlanta packed with wounded Confederate soldiers in "Gone With the Wind." On the contrary, it reminds you of the degree to which Hollywood molded our ideas of conflict and places "Testament of Youth" in a continuum of commercial high-minded war movies.

"Testament of Youth," however, is not fiction; Vera and the other major characters are real-life figures who faced the horrors of the First World War. The movie is also the stronger for having no battle sequences or scenes depicting acts of courage, though you hear about such heroics after the fact. There are just enough shots of life in the trenches to give a glimpse of a hell, peopled by exhausted, mud-covered soldiers who are almost unrecognizable from the vital young men who left Britain thinking they were bound for glory. Other scenes in army hospitals in England and behind the lines in France are unrelievedly grim tableaus.

All this is viewed through the eyes of Vera, portrayed by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander ("Anna Karenina," "Ex Machina"), who gives her character a purposeful edge of impatience and bitterness. "Testament of Youth" might be described as a feminist war film, because it is saturated with Vera’s frustration at her parents’ limited ambitions for her and later with her contempt for war. It isn’t until the end that she delivers a scathing anti-war diatribe.

The film begins on Armistice Day 1918, then flashes back four years to a scene of Vera, her younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton), and prep school friends Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan) and Roland Leighton (Kit Harington from "Game of Thrones") frolicking in the countryside.

Vera chafes at her parents’ efforts to groom her into a model future wife. Determined to go to Oxford, she rejects the piano her father (Dominic West) gives her and reminds him that it cost the same as a year in college. Contrary to the wishes of her severe, eagle-eyed mother (Emily Watson), Vera is not a flower waiting to be picked by a wealthy suitor, and her parents are aghast when she announces she will never marry.

A wary attraction develops between Vera and Roland, both of whom write poetry.

No sooner is war declared than first Roland, then Edward, then Victor succumb to war fever and heed the call to fight. Vera’s father relents and sends her to Oxford, where she has a stern but sympathetic adviser in Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson).

Soon Vera leaves Oxford for training as a nurse. The movie never asks us to regard her as a swoon-worthy angel of mercy but as a tough, smart woman of action who chokes back her fear and revulsion to do what must be done. At no point does "Testament of Youth" coddle her with misty soft-focus photography. The more Vera sees, the more she internalizes the grim reality she absorbs.

While hardly cold, "Testament of Youth" avoids the temptation to elicit tears, although a reading in the film of Roland Leighton’s poem "Villanelle" cuts to the bone. As for the bright, handsome eager beavers who excitedly troop off to a war they believe will end in a matter of weeks, they haven’t an inkling of the fate that awaits them.

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