I’ve just returned from watching the movie Testament of Youth based on the experiences of English writer and pacifist, Vera Britten. It was a poignant and deeply moving exploration of the dark journey of loss, of finding the courage to commit to that process and see it through in all of its dark aspects, to dive deep into the tearing that the rupturing process of trauma leaves in its wake and to bear testament to a suffering too deep for words alone. It is also finally a powerful affirmation of the quest to find the courage to emerge again, ultimately transformed, finding ways to live in peace with the ghosts of the past that must be remembered, can never be forgotten.
It was Vera’s path to have taken from her in slow succession three of the men she loved as brother, lover and friend over the course of four years, during the First World War. She did all she could to commit to being there in some way to fight for them, as a nurse at the front towards the later stages of World War I. In the end she saved her brother only to have him taken from her and her family less than a year later.
There is a powerful scene on one of the Yorkshire Moors where Vera runs across the landscape driven by anguish and grief. She takes off her shoes and burrowing her feet deep into the mud, smearing it on her face, trying to find comfort from the earth, which has also born witness to mankind’s collective madness.
A telegram has arrived that day to tell of her brother’s death, the third major loss for her. Her heartbreak seems unimaginable. The heartbreak of those losses seem unimaginable, but for those of us who have known loss, particularly of the masculine it will resonate.
There is a powerful image in the movie too of a eerie war torn landscape. All that remains are blackened stumps of trees, a foggy light and puddles of water that seem to reflect a luminescent gold. At this stage in the movie, which shows the decimation and ultimate bankruptcy of war, her brother is reading from a letter of his comrade. In it he speaks of the experience of feeling this golden light within the darkness of the devastation he is undergoing and yet finding within it a light of hope, of love, of redemption.
It is a powerful metaphor for what comes out of the deepest of dark nights for Vera, a determination not to allow the grief and pain of loss to harden into resentment which then repeats and could paralyse her. During the final year she had been nursing German soldiers close to the frontlines in France and realises that war causes untold suffering for both sides, grief does not discriminate.
Her final plea in the movie is a call for an end to the futile repetition of suffering through retribution. Vera lived her suffering every day, but in grieving it honestly and in writing about it she transforms it and in choosing to live and bear testament to it, finds a purpose in that suffering.
The end of the movie, for my friend and I who watched it brought a descent into the deepest silence within which the shock of all that we witnessed in the course of this testament reverberated. But the movie ultimately gave me hope and peace, for in facing the dark night Vera made of it a something golden, though deeply painful too and in choosing to live and love again she honoured the memory of all that she had lost. She did not close the door but passed through it. God bless you Vera.
One thought on “She knew the Dark Night”
Wow – sounds like a very powerful movie.