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TESTAMENT OF YOUTH

World War I gets the Masterpiece Theatre treatment in “Testament of Youth,” a lush, curiously decorous adaptation of the memoir by Vera Brittain, a young woman who became a prominent pacifist as a result of the deaths of her loved ones and the human devastation she witnessed during her service as a volunteer nurse at the front in France. In the hands of James Kent—whose background is, in fact, in British TV work, and makes his feature debut here—it emerges as the modern equivalent of a tasteful woman’s picture of the 1940s, more “Mrs. Miniver” than “Paths of Glory” (although, of course, it lacks the former’s blunt patriotism as much as the latter’s grit). For some, of course, that will be welcome news.

Alicia Vikander, who recently scored in “Ex Machina,” gets to play a full-fledged human being here as Brittain, who’s introduced early in 1914 as a headstrong, determined young woman angered by the insistence of her loving but traditional father (Dominic West)—backed by his submissive wife (Emily Watson)—that their daughter give up her dreams of attending Oxford and instead hone the skills that will make her a good marriage prospect. Vera is supported by her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), who’s about to graduate from a posh public school and go on to Oxford himself, but her self-preparation for the entrance exam appears to be wasted effort.

Edward’s bucolic summer vacation sees him and Vera frolicking in the countryside around their estate with two of his school chums—stiff, eager Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan) and handsome, athletic Roland Leighton (Kit Harington). Edward is clearly hoping for Vera and Victor to hit it off, but ultimately it’s Roland, whom she initially rebuffs, who turns out to be her soul mate—a thoughtful young man with whom she shares a love of literature and an urge to write poetry. (He also respects female strength, having a mother who herself was an accomplished author.) Her father eventually relents and allows Vera to sit for Oxford, and though she’s at first dismissed as a mere dilettante by a stern female don (Miranda Richardson), she’s accepted on grounds of her independence of mind.

Only Victor matriculates with her, however; her brother and Roland eschew university to volunteer for service in the war, which breaks out in August. Like most others, they believe that the conflict will be short and glorious, but of course it turns into the terrible slog of trench warfare that drags on for four years. Vera leaves Oxford to work as a volunteer nurse to the wounded first in England and then in France, where she’s assigned to tend to German soldiers as well as British ones, and comes to appreciate their common humanity. That experience, and the personal losses she suffers during the protracted fighting—which won’t be revealed here—lead her to become, by war’s end, a committed believer in the brotherhood of man and agitator for the peaceful resolution of international disputes.

But “Testament of Youth” is also a love story of the romance that grows between Vera and Roland, both before he departs for France, when the two get to know one another under the watchful eye of her Aunt Belle (Joanna Scanlan), who acts as their chaperone and during his service, when they exchange letters and meet during his rare, and all too short, leaves, when he briefly returns to England. Combat deepens him just as her experience does Vera, but their love endures and they become engaged, the ceremony scheduled for immediately after his completing his time in the field.

Adapter Juliette Towhidi has managed to boil down Brittain’s reminiscences into a coherent, if episodic form, in keeping with the BBC’s comfortably predictable treatment of such period material. (The Beeb dramatized it once before on film, as a 1979 television mini-series.) The ultimate feeling one gets from the script, and Kent’s practiced but unimaginative treatment of it, is of solid craftsmanship that hearkens back to an earlier age of filmmaking (there’s even a long tracking shot of battlefield wounded that’s an obvious homage to the famous one in “Gone With the Wind”). The essential problem with the approach is that it feel entirely too easy and comfortable for material of such depth; even the hospital sequences are staged to avoid being too discomforting. And the homeland scenes, from the initial pre-war halcyon days of rambling along winding roads and dips in nearby streams through the typical sequences of tearful troop departures and troubled reunions on the seaside, are so prettily done (thanks to production designer Jon Henson, art director Chris Wyatt, set decorator Robert Wischhusen-Hayes, costume designer Consolata Boyle and especially cinematographer Rob Hardy) that they seem more like paintings on a museum wall than emotional episodes. In short, the film renders Brittain’s wrenching experiences in sentimental, romanticized tones that value pictorial tastefulness over dramatic power.

Nonetheless Vikander seizes the opportunity to demonstrate her versatility, as well as the sheer charisma, the mark of a movie star, that she showed in “Ex Machina.” Harington, meanwhile, manages to exhibit the combination of virility and dewy-eyed sensitivity that the film’s portrait of lovesick Leighton needs. The rest of the cast comes across as largely functional, doing the sort of solid, professional work one expects of British second-tier players.

“Testament of Youth” is a smooth, elegantly crafted adaptation of Brittain’s account of her journey to committed pacifism; but its very conventionality and tactfulness undermine its power.

INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE

In the wake of “Jaws” came a slew of long-unforgotten, unlamented imitators, among them a couple about ravenous bears, “Grizzly” (1976) and “Claws” (1977). Neither was any good, and neither is “Into the Grizzly Maze,” though its cast rivals that of the disaster movies of four decades ago.

The set-up is more complicated than the plot that follows. Rowan (James Marsden) returns to his Alaskan boyhood hometown to search for a missing friend, Johnny (Adam Beach), who’s gone missing in the forest. He immediately runs into trouble with the law, Sheriff Sully (Scott Glenn) and his deputy, Rowan’s own estranged brother Beckett (Thomas Jane), who’s also conservationist-minded. But the three men are effectively thrown together in a common enterprise when it appears that a couple of loggers have been killed by a bear gone bad (played, the credits inform us, by Bart the Bear, whose character name , according to buzz, was once Red Machine, which also served as one of the titles the picture has gone by). Sully also enlists the help of hard-as-nails hunter Douglass (Billy Bob Thornton), who goes into the woods solo to track down what he quickly determines to be “the bear I’ve been waiting for all my life.” The situation is made even more dire by the fact that Beckett’s wife Michelle (Piper Perabo, a wildlife photographer who happens to be deaf) is out in the forest.

The situation, it appears, isn’t entirely new for Rowan and Beckett: a brief prologue shows us them encountering a bear when they were out hiking as kids. But it’s different now, because when Beckett is the ultimate straight-arrow, Rowan—as we will eventually learn—is an ex-con who spent years in the pokey for killing a man during a robbery (though, of course, his action was misunderstood). Things are also murky because some illegal poaching has been going on, the cause, it’s suggested, for the bear’s being so “pissed off,” as Douglass puts it. So as the narrative picks up, Beckett and ME Kaley (Michaela McManus) set out into the woods while Sully stays behind; while searching for Johnny, Rowan finds Michelle just after she’s been accosted by the bear and they seek refuge together; and Douglass enters the chase by himself. (The “grizzly maze,” by the way, is an area so convoluted that even bears get lost there.)

Much of the next hour or so of the movie consists of following the various characters as they stumble around the forest, while cutaways to the bear show him lumbering around, growling. Occasionally there are close calls and injuries, but most of the action takes place off screen, with the remains of the animal’s earlier victims found by the trackers providing what are supposed to be the shock moments. In the last fifteen minutes director David Hackl (“Saw V”) finally goes for broke, pitting his surviving cast against the bear in a confrontation that goes on way too long, with multiple, and increasingly ludicrous, escapes from the animal’s jaws and claws (as well as reappearances by characters assumed to be dead). But at least here the movie gets down to the sort of man-against-beast action it’s been promising but not delivering; and considering the budgetary limitations, it’s reasonably well choreographed, even if the editing can’t camouflage all the imperfections.

The cast is certainly starrier than one ordinarily finds in this kind of B-movie, and they all do competent work, though the writing ensures that the characters remain paper-thin. Marsden gets the most demanding work-out, physically, but Perabo and McManus put up with a good deal as well, and Thornton provides his customary smug malevolence. Jane and Glenn, however, appear to be dozing much of the time, and Beach has little more than a cameo. The locations are impressive, and James Lipton’s cinematography suffuses them with glossy color, but Marcus Trumpp’s score doesn’t generate much excitement.

If you’re looking for a bear-centric film, may I recommend Werner Herzog’s documentary about strange, ill-fated outdoorsman Timothy Treadwell, “Grizzly Man”? It’s no conventional horror film, but it’s scarier than this run-of-the-mill “Jaws” on land potboiler—and thought-provoking, too.