January 24, 2005

Vera Drake: The Abortionist Downstairs

by JEREMIAH LEWIS, American Digest Film Editor

Caught between two worlds, Vera Drake floats along an ephemeral plane of the unconscious. It is both a tale of good intentions (and you know where those lead), and a veiled (and vague) social drama that plays out like yesterday's politics.

Writer/director Mike Leigh doesn't put a whole lot of spin on what could have been a tightly wound spool of leftist rhetoric. And he places the story at a comfortable distance--England in the 1950's--so that its controversial subject can be digested with as little burping as possible. Leigh barely engages these issues to the audience though, settling for a dark cinematic expression of objectivity.

Instead of a pro- or anti-abortion film, Vera Drake is an intimate portrait of lower class life in the 1950's Britain. Character performances overcome the limitations inherent in the stereotypes, though not enough to make Vera Drake the highlight of Leigh's career.

Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is a kind, caring woman in her upper fifties with a loving family--wonderful, hardworking husband Stan (Philip Davis), Sid (Daniel Mays), her responsible son, and a grown daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly). Besides serving oceans of tea and carrying a perpetual smile, Vera cares for her sick mother and other disabled residents of her tenement, and also works as a domestic during the day. Cheerfully, of course. Secretly though, she also "helps young girls out when they can't manage" -- manage having a baby, that is. Her pro bono abortion work is as illegal as it is well-intentioned, and when one of her patients nearly dies from the procedure, Vera is soon caught, and her family and their happy little lives begin to unravel.

The film wavers between critiquing social mores and exposing the nature of illegal abortion as a measure of goodwill on the part of a few dedicated and caring older women, but it never fully reaches any definitive conclusion about either matter.

The latter, a one-sided, if little seen, aspect of abortion in the 1950's, is at least tempered with a gentle, even understanding portrayal of anti-abortion sentiment. The social mores aspect is a little fuzzier. Leigh doesn't delve into the legal structures and social traditions that constructed anti-abortion laws. Thus Vera's case seems to be a simple matter of a woman who breaks the law willfully, and whose actions eventually affect her and her family. Are we meant to sympathize with a woman who contravenes the law, at the expense of young girls' lives? The film gives us no clues.

Leigh seems uninterested in formenting opinion in favour of or against abortion, but rather in showing the effects of anti-abortion laws on common people. What is more important, and perhaps unintended, is the way in which class differences are shown, and how abortion fits into the scheme of society. For some, the route is a way greased by money, class, and a knowledge of how to skirt the legal problems. For others, it is a way secured in the small rooms and common cafes, bought with guineas and a promise not to tell.

Most important is Leigh's representation of family and friendship, the bonds that draw people together that must be strengthened from time to time through trial and trouble. Vera is a well-meaning woman whose actions threaten her family, but they survive through love, forgiveness, and encouragement. This is a powerful message.

Imelda Staunton is not especially nuanced. She spends the first half of the film smiling and the last half in tears and brokenhearted glances; surely someone as cheerful as Vera could handle a felony arrest with a chipper smile and her favourite catchphrase "I'll just put the kettle on". More impressive are the performances by the excellent ensemble acting crew, whose portrayals are both genuine and touched with the humanity and sympathy of good, common folk.

The writing is solid, even if the story itself seems less than complete and haunted by stereotypes. Except for Staunton, none of the other actors knew the film was about abortion until their character finds out. This is typical of Mike Leigh films, where often the plot and its windings are improvised; in this case the result is an extraordinary image of the depth of human emotion and response to trial brought to life by authentic performances.

Some things don't quite add up, however. It is a little odd that Vera never once, in her twenty year career as a weekend abortionist, accepts money for her work (or even brings the question of money up). It's even odder that she manages to keep this double life a secret from her family (though perhaps they were blinded by their enthusiasm for being working class commoners).

Despite the weaknesses of the story and Staunton's character and performance, the film succeeds. Instead of typical, heavy-handed Hollywood politics, Vera Drake gives two sides of a debate, long since amplified, the respect and objectivity they deserve. Whilst there could have been more explored here, this film stands out as an excellent character performance piece and examination of British class systems in the 1950's.

Jeremiah Lewis of Fringe reviews films both at his site and American Digest. Lewis can be reached directly at jeremiah.lewis@gmail.com

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Posted by Vanderleun at January 24, 2005 8:51 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

"I deliberately and without any affectation made Vera Drake to pose a moral dilemma that has no slick or easy answers. We live in an overpopulated world. There is no question that to bring an unwanted and unloved child into this chaos is deeply irresponsible. There is no question that you destroy life when you terminate a pregnancy. But there is also no question that choice ought to exist. Those are my personal views. The film can only work if the audience takes the moral and emotional debate away with them." Mike Leigh, Director - Vera Drake

Posted by: Amy Byrd at January 25, 2005 6:21 PM
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