The Academy once got off by sprinkling Oscar gold all over traditional World War I epics — Wings and All Quiet on the Western Front are both Best Picture winners — and snubbing the truly great ones, such as Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. It’s anybody’s guess what the Academy of Old Farts & Sciences will make of Testament of Youth, the rare WWI film that centers on, of all things, a woman. She’d be Vera Brittain, a young, well-bred Brit whose bestselling 1933 memoir detailed her transformation from aspiring poet — headstrong enough to get into Oxford — to battlefield nurse, a pre-feminist warrior who sees the bloody effects of war firsthand and soldiers on.
Swedish beauty Alicia Vikander, who proved herself a find and then some in Ex Machina, is electrifying as Vera, playing this firebrand with a tough core of intelligence and wit. Vikander is up to every challenge set for her by first-time feature director James Kent, screenwriter Juliette Towhidi, and producer David Heyman, whose experience on the Harry Potter films gives Testament of Youth a high-style, Masterpiece Theater sheen. Vikander, bless her, busts through all that veneer as she steers her own path through a world of men. First, there’s blustering daddy (Dominic West), who thinks a woman’s place is anywhere but university or war. Her younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton) is more sympathetic. The hopelessly devoted Victor (Colin Morgan) just moons after her. Only the swooningly romantic Roland (Kit Harington) wins her heart, and that’s by writing her poetry.
It’s great to see the excellent Harington — Jon Snow on Game of Thrones — break of that bleak midwinter and play an artist whose poet’s eye is blurred by combat. Harington and Vikander provide the spark the film needs to get us through the tribulations and tragedies that pile on with numbing regularity. You leave Testament of Youth feeling some of the impact that Brittain’s book must have had at the time. But if you want to feel everything, it’s right there on Vikander’s raw and radiant face. This is an actress you would willingly follow anywhere.