“Testament of Youth”: The view from the homefront during World War I

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“Testament of Youth” is now playing at Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 2:09, three stars out of four. I’ll be doing a post-show chat after the 7:30 p.m. Tuesday show at Sundance Cinemas, 430 N. Midvale Blvd.

“Testament of Youth” is a British period drama as good-looking as any Merchant-Ivory production, but underneath its handsome exterior burns a cold, measured fury. Taken from Vera Brittain’s memoir of being a World War I field nurse, the film brings Brittain’s sorrow and anger at the cost of war intact to the big screen.

That’s due largely to the terrific performance of Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina”) as Brittain. Instead of going for big, showy moments, Vikander opts for small, honest gestures that suggest the fragile state of a woman whose feelings have been under siege for years. I’ve read the phrase “She went numb” so often in books that it’s become cliche, but this is the first time I’ve seen it convincingly portrayed, as Brittain’s body seems to shut down in the face of awful news.

The movie begins on Armistice Day 1918, as a dazed Brittain moves through crowds of Brits cheering the news that the war is over. She can’t celebrate. She’s seen too much, and what’s been done can’t be undone.

Then we go back to 1914, when Brittain is a forthright young woman trying to cajole her father (Dominic West of “The Wire”) into sending her to Oxford, not the typical path for a woman of that era. While she runs into obstacles at Oxford (a female professor (Miranda Richardson) is especially hard on her), this section of the film feels optimistic, full of possibility.

Then the cloud of war comes. Vera’ fiance Roland (Kit Harington of “Game of Thrones”) signs up. Vera’s brother (Taron Egerton of “Kingsman: The Secret Service”) signs up. All the boys sign up for war. “Testament of Youth” is tragically perceptive at detailing the lies that people tell themselves in order to go fight wars — that it won’t be so bad, that it’s an adventure. That they’ll come home.

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Aside from brief flashes of the battlefield, director James Kent keeps the focus resolutely on the homefront, on the wives and parents and families all waiting anxiously for news. The tragedy of war is conveyed through deceptively simple images, like a boy on a bicycle with news pedalling up the hill, and everyone hoping he doesn’t stop at their house.

Even when Vera goes to France and becomes a field nurse, Kent denies us any of the thrills of battle, instead showing us the broken and bleeding bodies, lined up like firewood in the mud outside an understaffed hospital. “You’re not angels of mercy,” Vera’s supervisor tells the nurses. “You’re workers.” And, indeed, they seem less like caregivers and more like workers in some grotesque factory, processing through an endless supply of grisly product.

Once the war is over, Brittain became an ardent pacifist, and wrote the memoir on which “Testament of Youth” is based. A century later, when the self-delusions about war still seem to hold sway over politicians, it is as relevant as ever.

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