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Review: A war story elevated beyond stereotypes

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Remember this name: Alicia Vikander.

Prediction: In the next year or two she'll be presenting an award at the Oscars. In the year or two after that she'll be accepting an award at the Oscars.

For now, the 26-year-old Swedish actress is in the midst of a Jessica Chastain-like meteoric rise in the world of film with some seven movies — ranging from potential blockbusters to prestige and Oscar bait films — due in U.S. theaters in 2015. The first was the startling artificial intelligence sleeper hit "Ex Machina," which came out in April.

The second is the British period piece "Testament of Youth," in which she portrays the English pacifist Vera Brittain. Yes, the Brits chose a Swedish woman to portray one of their most cherished activists. See the movie and you'll understand why.

The film could easily be one of those musty stiff-upper-lip works with idyllic starstruck virginal types waving goodbye at a train station as the man goes off to war. And it sort of is just that except Vikander lifts the entire enterprise on her slender shoulders, transforming it into a more subtle and pure thing.

Essentially this is the story, based on Brittain's memoir of the same name, of how she lost most of the young men she cared for during World War I and how she eventually left her studies at Oxford (a rare place for a woman to be at the time) to serve as a nurse near the front lines in France.

The film comes stocked with the classic contrast between pastoral British countryside scenes and bloody after-the battle horror show shocks. There's nervous, awkward courting involving Vera and her eventual fiancé (Kit Harrington from "Game of Thrones"), the terrifying approach of a telegram messenger on a bike, and a grand summation speech at the end, all hallmarks of a British war film.

But, somehow, Vikander sells it all, not with braying and big gestures, but with vulnerability, sincerity and the sort of ethereal realness that can't be quantified. More, please, more.

tlong@detroitnews.com

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'Testament of Youth'

GRADE: B

Rated PG-13 for thematic material including bloody and disturbing war-related images

Running time: 129 minutes