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Harrington, Vikander star in 'Testament of Youth'

‘Testament of Youth’ is a fine, moving memoir of WWI, though it continues a very tough week for Kit Harrington

WHEN THE men fighting World War I sought to express the stupidity and horror of what they were witnessing, their most effective words came in the form of poetry.

World War I produced "the war poets," Gibson and Owen and Sassoon, the men who "trembled, cold with dread, lest they wake up dead."

And often did.

This we keep in mind as we watch the moving, mournful "Testament of Youth," whose lush visuals seek to find some of that poetry in the memoir of Vera Brittain, brought to life with improbable power in this well-judged adaptation by James Kent, featuring Alicia Vikander as Brittain.

Brittain is a feminist and pacifist, the former on display in early scenes of Vera bristling at the condescension of her father (Dominic West), who's spent her Oxford tuition on a piano, the better to groom her for marriage.

Times are changing, though, and the young men her brother (Taron Egerton) brings home are keen to meet the bright and headstrong Vera. These include Roland (Kit Harington) who encourages her ambition, and, in fact, hopes to romance her at Oxford.

They're part of a wide, literary circle, caught up in the adventure of art and scholarship and writing, reading Chaucer and Byron, but not the newspaper headlines, which warn about war with Germany, and seem to clamor for it.

Initially, young Vera is as excited as everyone else her age, even argues to her father (a wary veteran) that her brother be allowed to enlist - an argument we sense will come to haunt her.

The young men leave for France, and though the movie shows us little of the actual carnage, Vera sees enough - from her window at college, she sees the returning soldiers, limbless, shell shocked, sitting in wheelchairs in their purple-blue uniforms (the movie's use of heightened color seems merely decorative at first, but takes on added meaning over time).

Brittain feels feeble and insulated at Oxford, and so becomes a nurse, which takes her as close to the horror of the war as she needs to be.

Even in this grisly place, "Testament" is strangely and effectively lyrical (in that way it put me in mind of "12 Years a Slave" and its incongruously gorgeous photography).

Here also are the movie's most profound passages - Brittain is fluent in German, and so is assigned to care for prisoners, the very men trying to kill her brother, lover and friends. A delusional German cries out for comfort, she pretends to be his wife. These scenes, wordlessly well acted by Vikander, show Vera's reluctant sense of duty transforming into a moral awakening - all the blood, British, German, flows literally into the same foul gutters, a rivulet formed of futile slaughter.

The war ends with Vera feeling a special obligation to the dead - the men who championed her gift are gone, she repays them by using her talent to tell their story properly, and above all honestly.

"Noble and painless."

That's the military verdict on the death of a British soldier, and Vera knows it to be false. She pushes for the truth, finds it, but can't bring herself to reveal it to the man's family.

Noble and painless, she repeats.

The lie curdles within her, leading to a strong scene in which she finds her voice and her courage all at once, speaking in front of an angry mob attacking a pacifist politician.

She doesn't know what to say, but starts with the truth of war as she knows it.

It's not noble, it's certainly not painless.

And she's done lying about it.