It’s rare that really fine actors sneak up on me; I’m usually up on the buzz and seeing movies early and thus kind of aware of really fine performers coming up. So I was blown away when an actress I’d never even heard of, name of Alicia Vikander, just knocked me out in Ex Machina. Well, this film came out in Britain prior to Ex Machina and made her a bit of known quantity over there, so when it opened here the other day, I got to it and quick.
It’s an adaptation of Vera Brittain’s memoir of the effect of World War I on her life and the lives of her family & friends. And Vikander just absolutely kills in this movie; if you thought she was great in Ex Machina, see this and realize that you hadn’t even seen her get out of the shallows in Ex Machina. Her performance over the length of this 129 minute movie has to span from the naïve, happy young girl of the days before the Great War to the broken, emotionally devastated woman of the days after the Armistice and she hits both notes wonderfully and all of the ones in between too. It’s a perfectly observed, but still emotionally agile performance and, given the fact that she’s beautiful in a classic Hollywood kind of way yet also kind of distinctive in her look, I expect her to be able to have quite the career. I certainly hope so anyway.
She’s ably supported by a wonderful supporting cast. Miranda Richardson as an acerbic professor at Oxford, Taron Egerton (of Kingsman) as her adventurous younger brother; Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington & Colin Morgan as youthful friends; Dominic West as her father; Hayley Atwell (you know, Agent Carter) as a hardened battlefield nurse. Harington in particular deserves to be singled out as giving just a really, really fine performance. James Kent’s direction is often elliptical and atmospheric rather than representational, weaving in visual motifs and callbacks with a nice artistic touch, making the film far more than a standard biopic with real themes and a masterful tone. And a really beautiful score by Max Richter, who knows how to swell emotions with a lush orchestra, but also when to hold back and let the silence build or just quietly build dread with a muted piano or light percussion. It’s really just masterfully done on every single level. The film is ultimately a really disturbing examination of war and the home front; not a single shot is fired in the film, but the hellish reality of the war is communicated beautifully and evocatively via the strong performances and the grim scenes dealing with veterans in hospitals and on leave, men dealing with the maiming of their physical bodies and the destruction of their emotional identities & psychological strength. It’s a dark film tonally and this beautifully contrasts with the brightly lit, often pastoral beauty of the visuals. Anyway, I really can’t recommend this film enough. Hopefully it’s opened in a theater near you; if it has, go see it immediately. Vikander’s performance here is beyond star-making; it’s kind of legend-establishing, at least for me, and the other elements of the film are worthy of her performance. This one deserves to be a classic. Highly recommended. 4 stars.
tl;dr – masterful, beautiful examination of the Great War and the home front is emotionally devastating and features a genuinely legend-establishing performance by star Alicia Vikander. 4 stars.