"War," Edwin Starr famously wondered, "What is it good for?"
I'll tell you what it's good for: War inspires art. Obviously, no one sane hankers for it, but without war our culture wouldn't have Picasso's "Guernica," Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," Springsteen's "Lost in the Flood," Altman's "M*A*S*H" -- I could totally cram this entire space with war-begat titles from every medium. Art is often derived from conflict, and the only motif offering more conflict than humans ordered to slaughter one another is the inner turmoil duking it out in both those who fight and those left behind.
Rare, though, is the female perspective, which is undoubtedly why English writer Vera Brittain's reminiscences on World War I, first published in 1933, have never gone out of print and now make for the gorgeously crafted, resonant coming-of-age film "Testament of Youth."
Presumably a few were agitated at the casting of a Swedish actress as a famous English rose, but Alicia Vikander follows up her knockout "Ex Machina" restraint with another stunning turn, this one requiring her to hit a challenging spectrum of emotional beats. Vikander plays Vera, who we first encounter on Armistice Day, 1918, as she weaves her sad, haunted way through a crush of London revelers celebrating the end of The Great War. But we're quickly flashed back four years to witness the same young woman happily bobbing in an idyllic Derbyshire swimming hole, only to return home and rage against her well-to-do father (Dominic West, impressive in his few scenes) for buying her a husband-snagging piano rather than funding the Oxford education of which this aspiring writer dreams.
It's not ruining anything to say that the smart and determined Vera eventually gets her way, even in the face of the educational constraints felt by women a mere hundred years ago. And despite her anti-marriage stance, Vera cautiously falls for her brother Edward's poet friend Roland Leighton (dreamy Kit Harington, "Game of Thrones"), their chaperoned excursions chaste yet delicately erotic.
Then an archduke is assassinated in Sarajevo and the world is plunged into what would shake out as one of history's deadliest conflicts, with millions of young men, including Edward and Roland, impelled to volunteer for service in the names of honor and duty. Unsurprisingly, our headstrong heroine also joins the war effort as a nurse, but not before butting heads with a steely professor (the formidable Miranda Richardson) who believes that Vera should remain at school and work even harder.
The added weight of war through Vera's eyes gives "Testament of Youth" a profound gravity as she cares for enemy combatants not so different from her own loved ones on the battlefield, while simultaneously enduring an unfathomable parade of loss. Cinematographer Rob Hardy (he also shot "Ex Machina" and the first chapter of the stellar "Red Riding" trilogy) effectively juxtaposes the bloody, muddy hospital environment against the inoffensively drab greys of academia and the verdant English countryside, the differing textures somehow popping off the screen as well. And though train-platform farewells and pullback shots of devastation have been done before, director James Kent refrains from relying upon the superficial potency of battle scenes, trusting instead that the aftermath, when all the adrenaline has dissipated, is equally visceral, the reactions of those not at the front mirroring our own.
The acting here is excellent across the board, with Harington nicely throwing off the shackles of that dull downer Jon Snow, and Taron Egerton making an indelible impression as Vera's supportive brother Edward. (The always awesome Emily Watson plays Vera's clucking mother.) But it's worth remembering that "Testament of Youth" is Vera's memoir -- the first part of a trilogy recounting Vera's life -- meaning that we can only experience what she experienced. As such, Vikander is in every scene of the movie, and her gracefully tempestuous performance is nothing short of Oscar-worthy, her accent perfectly clipped and her dainty doll face registering a storm of emotions before she utters a word. The final scene hints at Vera's future as an outspoken pacifist: her teary, defiant plea to "end the cycle of revenge" as applicable now as it was then.