Abortion and the working class

Mike Leigh again gives English society close scrutiny in `Vera Drake'

MovieReview

October 29, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Vera Drake spends her every waking moment doing for others, whether she's cleaning for the upper-class twits down the road, keeping her own family's spirits up or performing back-alley abortions for lower-class girls "in trouble."

Writer-director Mike Leigh sees Vera as something of a saint, and there's certainly a noble, innate altruism to her that evokes compassion, if not admiration. We're made to feel sorry for her, if only because we see coming what she doesn't - the inevitable bad end.

Vera Drake, Leigh's latest appreciation of the British working class and its bedrock morality, presents a severely stacked deck, even by his standards. The film soars on the strength of its strong cast, especially Imelda Staunton as the quietly suffering Vera; her performance is made all the more remarkable by the limitations of the role, which boils down her emotional range to two extremes, chipper and devastated.

But Leigh's emotional didacticism, his insistence that Vera is all good while the system that will eventually, inevitably bring her down is all bad, weighs the film down more than it deserves.

The Drakes - Vera, her husband, Stan (Phil Davis), and their grown children, Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly) - live in a tiny flat in postwar London (1950, to be exact). The family's not rich, but they make do, thanks to Vera's housecleaning business, Stan's work at his brother Frank's garage and Ethel's job making light bulbs. (Sid's a tailor-in-training.)

Their lives are rather ordinary and would seem destined to stay that way, save for Vera's secret life as an abortionist. Using various kitchen implements and maintaining a determined chirpiness regardless of the circumstance, Vera induces miscarriages in young women who otherwise would be forced to see their pregnancies through. (In a rather clumsy side story, an upper-class girl who falls victim to date rape gets her abortion at a private clinic, where everything is clean and hush-hush and, most importantly, legal.)

Key to the moral underpinnings of Vera Drake is that Vera accepts no money for her abortion services; it's all part of her service to those in need. Not that money doesn't change hands; unknown to Vera, her childhood friend Lily (Ruth Sheen), who arranges the abortions, charges for her troubles. But Vera receives not a penny.

All goes well until one of the girls Vera "helps" nearly dies, and the police question her mother, who reluctantly gives up Vera's name. Arrested, jailed and tried before an unmoved judge (Jim Broadbent), Vera watches with quivering lip as not only her world, but her entire family's, comes crashing down.

Leigh, famous for giving his actors considerable leeway when it comes to dialogue as well as performance, simply makes Vera too angelic for the movie's good. Staunton does wonders with the role; it's not easy to make perpetual goodness compelling, even if it is compromised by her choice of profession. A veteran of British films best known on these shores for small supporting roles (Shakespeare In Love, Sense and Sensibility), she invests Vera with the strength of simplicity. So determined is this working-class angel to make others happy that she neglects herself without a thought. She knows what she's doing is illegal, and she's probably more than a little disturbed by the morality of it all, but if inducing miscarriages is what is required, she's willing to serve.

But the character of Vera seems to tantalize us, asking us to wait an entire film for her to erupt, to change in some fundamental way, to grow. But she never does, leaving the audience feeling cheated. Think of Timothy Spall's character in Leigh's Secrets & Lies (1996), whose moment of unexpected rage is both a shock and a release. Such a moment would have done wonders for Vera Drake.

Still, there's an awful lot to admire here, especially when it comes to the interpersonal relations Leigh and his actors put on the screen. The low-key empathy between Staunton's Vera and Davis' Stan plays out with wrenching honesty; when his saint of a wife turns out to be a criminal of questionable virtue (at least in the law's eye), Stan becomes untethered and alone; his dilemma, and inability to come to grips with it, provides the film with its most poignant moments.

Also drawn with care are the interrogation scenes, where an emotionally defenseless Vera is questioned by Detective Inspector Webster (Peter Wight). The lawman clearly wishes he were doing anything but questioning this woman, but he has a job to do. The result is one of cinema's most tender interrogations, made even easier by Vera's absolute lack of guile; her desperate longing to please extends to the police as well.

Vera Drake makes a perfectly valid moral point, whether seen as an indictment of how the working classes have been treated (rich girls, after all, can get abortions at their leisure); an argument against the danger, not to mention hypocrisy, of outlawing a medical treatment many women find necessary for reasons that have nothing to do with convenience; or an acknowledgment that abortion scars an entire community, not just the woman being operated on.

In the end, this is a movie that doesn't respect its own power. Less of a stacked deck would have left Vera Drake to play a far more effective hand.

Vera Drake

Starring: Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis

Written and directed by: Mike Leigh

Rated: R (depiction of strong thematic material)

Released by: Fine Line Features

Time: 125 minutes

Sun Score ***

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