“Inspirational stories for the damned” is the label given by one blinded soldier to survival tales like his in “Testament of Youth” — it’s also an apt description of this rousing, robust adaptation of Vera Brittain’s landmark First World War memoir. Deftly balancing restrained sentimentalism with tough-minded human tragedy, this impressive, unashamedly classical feature debut by TV helmer James Kent has the populist heft one expects from producer David Heyman, while preserving the solemn intimacy of Brittain’s account of lives and loves severed by the conflict. Sumptuously appointed and attractively cast — with Swedish up-and-comer Alicia Vikander a luminous Brittain — “Youth” may be lower in profile and star wattage than a comparably skilled wartime weeper like “Atonement,” but should be appreciated by much the same audience.
Previously adapted by the BBC as a television serial in 1979, Brittain’s 1933 tome has taken several years to reach the bigscreen under Heyman’s guidance. Its ultimate unveiling as the centerpiece gala of the London Film Festival is tidily timed, landing as it does in this centenary year of the Great War. (That angle should feature prominently in the publicity push, even if the pic is slated for a January 2015 release in the U.K.)
Part of the great appeal of “Testament of Youth,” however, is that it could effectively have been released at any point in the sound-cinema era: Stitched through with shots and scenes of comfortingly unfashionable familiarity, from the tearful trainside farewell to the devastated battlefield zoom-out, Kent’s film is as much a reflection on war cinema as it is on war itself. One suspects the recently departed Richard Attenborough would look on with approval, which is not to say this is an entirely conservative feat of heritage cinema: There’s a still-pertinent freshness to its feminist perspective that staves off the cobwebs.
Neatly filleted by “Calendar Girls” screenwriter Juliette Towhidi — taking on a more imposing adaptation assignment than her other 2014 feature credit, chick-lit comedy “Love, Rosie” — Brittain’s narratively sprawling book (only the first volume of her memoirs) has been neatly shaped as a coming-of-age story that syncs poignantly with the trajectory of WWI. Left out are Brittain’s recollections of her postwar journalism career and marriage to political scientist George Catlin; the emphasis instead is on her teenage love affair with soldier and aspiring poet Roland Leighton, played with sensitivity and moist-eyed shimmer by “Game of Thrones” heartthrob Kit Harington. Facilitated by the exchange of mutually besotted verse, theirs is the kind of impossibly pure movie romance — initiated amid windblown sheets of ivory lace, no less — for which one fears even before the drums of war are sounded.
Opening with a glimpse of euphoric Armistice Day celebrations before rewinding four years to the summer of 1914, the film introduces Brittain as a stern, headstrong protagonist, evidently hardened by a lifetime of having to fight for the same liberties afforded her male friends and family. Her affectionate but bemused father (Dominic West) initially obstructs her dream of studying at Oxford, believing it a pointless vocation for marriageable women; with the persuasion of her devoted younger brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), he permits her to sit the entrance exam. University life holds another, more tangible attraction in Leighton, one of Edward’s military-academy friends and also Oxford-bound. They fall in love swiftly and sweetly; halcyon days of amorous academia beckon.
When Britain declares war on Germany, driving home a crisis that had previously intruded on Brittain’s upper-class life only via distant-sounding headlines, the idyll rapidly crumbles. Edward enlists, followed in short order by Leighton, and Brittain must attend Oxford on her own, mentored by prickly but supportive teacher Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson, a glassy twinkle in her eye). As the men head to the front lines, however, Brittain cannot placidly resign herself to her books: Putting her studies on hold, she enrolls as a military nurse, gaining some measure of physical empathy with the trials endured by her male loved ones.
Kent presents the female experience of war with crisp, tactile practicality, likening the nurses’ hospital training to a kind of rigorous boot camp in itself. Rob Hardy’s camera, meanwhile, lingers in penetrating closeup on the broken, bloodied skin of the wounded. Unabashedly romantic the film may be, but little about Brittain’s grief-ridden personal awakening is needlessly romanticized.
For that, much of the credit should go to Vikander, an actress capable both of fluttery mystique and diamond-hard conviction, sometimes within a single scene. Hers is a performance built on tricky, even contradictory, transitions to maturity: Brittain’s skin must toughen even as her heart must open, and Vikander negotiates the balance with intuitive grace and technical precision, not to mention a sturdy cut-glass accent. Given fewer complex notes to play, Harington and Egerton nonetheless don’t waste them; together with supporting standout Colin Morgan, wonderful as a less strapping soldier with an unrequited yen for the heroine, they movingly evoke the fast-fading bravado and ill-concealed terror of boys at war.
The actors’ unified commitment to detail and resistance to excess is echoed below the line on this richly crafted film, in which no single expert contribution — Max Richter’s alternate fragile and soaring orchestral score, Lucia Zucchetti’s unhurried but attentive editing, Consolata Boyle’s simultaneously star-serving and socially perceptive costumes — is permitted to showboat ahead of another. Hardy’s serene but sharply composed lensing isn’t immune to interludes of outright pictorialism, but they’re always at the service of the script’s own emotional surges: As iridescent imagery of wild flora accompanies a recitation of Leighton’s war poem “Violets From Oversea,” the film successfully draws the tears for which it honestly aims. “God forbid any of you should be soft,” Brittain sarcastically taunts posturing military menfolk in one scene; Kent, for one, knows the value of delicacy.