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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Testament of Youth is a historical drama based on Vera Brittain's same-titled memoir about being young during World War I. The story of her life as an aspiring Oxford student, bride-to-be, and battlefield nurse is both heartrending and violent. It shows the horror of trench warfare -- young men bloodied and missing limbs, blind, and in various stages of injury -- and many characters die, some in terrible pain, bleeding, and calling for loved ones. Expect some drinking and historically accurate smoking, but there's no sexual content aside from a few passionate kisses between Vera (Alicia Vikander) and her beau/fiance. And the language is tame ("bloody," "sod off"), so it's really just the violence that will determine whether your teen is ready to see this war drama/romance.
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What's the story?
TESTAMENT OF YOUTH is based on the late British writer and pacifist Vera Brittain's (Alicia Vikander) memoir about her experiences as an Oxford student-turned-war nurse during World War I. The movie opens on Armistice Day in 1918 and then flashes back four years to 1914, a breezier time when the most dire thing on Vera's mind was getting her father (Dominic West) to agree to let her take the Oxford entrance exam. Vera's brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), is home for the Easter holidays with his two boarding school pals, Victor (Colin Morgan) and Roland (Kit Harington), both of whom have obvious crushes on the beautiful but intimidatingly focused Vera. After she and Roland discover they share a love of writing poetry, they strike up a romantic correspondence. But just as Vera and the boys are all preparing to enter Oxford, war breaks out, and Roland enlists. Eventually all the young men are off risking their lives, so Vera leaves Oxford to volunteer as a nurse -- a decision that makes her a witness to the horrors of war, even as she experiences her own devastation.
Is it any good?
Veteran British TV director James Kent's feature debut is both wonderful and heartbreaking. It's the tale of a young woman whose dreams came true, only to be cruelly dashed as the Great War ravaged an entire generation of her peers, including men she loved, tended to, and watched die in front of her eyes. Vikander, a Swedish actor gifted with extraordinary acting skills and a truly luminescent beauty, gives a quiet but fierce performance. The cinematographer's many close-ups are welcome, because Vikander conveys so much with her eyes -- from disappointment and anger to joy, love, and grief. Her portrayal of Vera as first a feisty teen and eventually a traumatized young woman hoping to find some meaning in of a war that offered none is unforgettably powerful.
Surrounding Vikander is a fabulous ensemble, from Harington, Egerton, and Morgan as the trio of young officers she knows best to West and Emily Watson as her concerned parents and Miranda Richardson as her feminist dean at Oxford. They all play their parts well, with Harington especially effective as Vera's love interest, Roland -- a young man uniquely suited to her. Roland supports the suffragette movement, has a professional writer for a mother, and writes Vera passionate poems. There's a lot of sadness in Testament of Youth, but it's not played as melodrama. Even a century later, WWI has much to teach us about the irreversible damage that even the most righteous of wars can cause.
Talk to your kids about ...
How do depictions of World War II and more recent wars compare to those of World War I? What are some other movies about WWI?
Unlike many, this war story is told from a woman's perspective. How have women's roles changed since WWI? How did the war impact Vera?
- In theaters: June 12, 2015
- On DVD or streaming: October 20, 2015
- Cast: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Dominic West
- Director: James Kent
- Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters, Brothers and Sisters, Friendship, History
- Character Strengths: Courage, Perseverance
- Run time: 129 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: thematic material including bloody and disturbing war related images
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Seal
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