Judge Joe Armenio admires Mike Leigh's powerful portrait of a woman who wanted to help young women.
Wife. Mother. Criminal.
Opening Statement Our legal format fits perhaps a bit too well with Mike Leigh's film Vera Drake, the story of a working-class woman arrested for performing illegal abortions. Leigh respects his characters and his audience too much to make the film a vehicle for competing political tracts on the issue of abortion; it is, rather, a powerful drama about a family's trials, and a subtle examination of the ways in which class privilege makes a mockery of the concept of equality under the law.
Facts of the Case
Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is a fifty-something woman working as a housekeeper in 1950s London. She lives in a small apartment with her husband and two grown children, and is shown as something of a neighborhood humanitarian, checking in on the sick and aged, inviting a lonely young man to her family's home for supper and companionship. She also, unknown to her family, "helps girls out," her phrase for the procedure with a syringe and soapy water by which she terminates unwanted pregnancies. When one of her patients becomes ill, the police are informed and Vera is arrested. The rest of the film deals with her and her family's attempts to deal with the facts of her crime and trial.
The film's early sequences make it clear that the Drakes are poor but not desperate; their apartment is small but well-kept, their family close-knit and happy. Vera clearly takes pleasure in doing good, and in the daily rituals of family life. In one particularly effective shot of the Drakes getting ready for dinner, director Leigh is content to set his camera just outside the kitchen and let the wholesome bustle and chatter of the family's preparations flow in and out of the frame. A major plot point in this working-class idyll seems to be the courtship of Vera and Stan's shy daughter Ethel with the lonely young man, Reg, whom Vera had brought home for dinner.
Vera hears of girls who need "help" through a black marketeer named Lily, a woman who seems rather transparently sadistic but whom Vera naïvely regards as a friend. We see several scenes of her performing her procedure in the cold and dismal quarters of poor women who have no other options; some of them are nervous, some are cavalier, one is a hassled mother of seven who simply can't afford to have another baby.
It soon becomes clear that for all of her caring and desire to do good, there's something inadequate about the service Vera provides. She's not a doctor, and when she's done, she simply leaves. The women have no recourse if something goes wrong, no one to turn to for further advice. In one scene, a girl becomes terrified when Vera prepares to leave; she can't do anything in response except give her standard instructions and wish the woman well. In another scene, a woman cries hysterically as Vera prepares her for the procedure. Leigh cuts away and ends the scene before Vera says anything, suggesting there's not much that she could have said.
The inadequate options open to the working class are contrasted to those of the rich through a subplot involving Susan, the daughter of one of Vera's employers. She becomes pregnant when raped by her boyfriend, and through family connections and at a very high price is able to secure the services of a doctor who performs an abortion. Like many of the women for whom Vera provides, Susan is a sympathetic figure, a traumatized and overwhelmed girl, but due to class privilege she's able to end her pregnancy in a safer way.
Leigh never turns his class critique into a study of the virtuous poor battling the rapacious rich. It's rather a story of the ways in which class affects the lives of a variety of people, some of whom are more caring than others. The doctor who brings the performance of illegal abortions to the police's attention operates from humanitarian motives, attempting to end the practice of what he sees as unsafe procedures. The police themselves are kind and never harass or badger Vera. The film saves its contempt for those who lack empathy, such as the sour and exploitative Lily, and Stan's social-climbing, materialistic sister-in-law, Joyce, who looks down on Stan and Vera for their modest surroundings and lack of ambition. Vera's downfall, Leigh is saying, is not the doing of one particularly evil moneyed interest, but the result of an embedded class structure that transcends individual personalities and motives.
Leigh is an actor's director, using the camera to accentuate the virtues of his performers; he often uses the close-up to agonizing effect in the second half of the film, showing Vera's once-cheery features locked in an expression of inarticulate sorrow. As advertised, it is a remarkable performance by Imelda Staunton. Leigh also favors long takes and a still camera, letting the mood and pace of Vera's conversations with the police unfold without the distractions of cutting. He refuses to provide psychological reasons for Vera's behavior. At one point a passing line of dialogue informs us that she was raised by a single mother and never knew who her father was, a fact that raises more questions than it answers. During her interrogation a policeman asks her if she herself was ever "in trouble," a question to which she's unable to respond coherently. Vera also never presents an ideological justification of her behavior, repeating only that she wants to "help girls out." Some might criticize this as an evasion, but it seems realistic to me; Vera is not the sort of person to think in ideological terms. Sometimes, though, her naïvete is expanded to troubling and implausible lengths, as in her relationship with Lily: Vera is a woman of limited education and often misplaced faith in the goodness of humanity, but does she really lack the experience and instincts to sense that the black marketeer is gouging her patients?
New Line presents Vera Drake in a widescreen edition, with no extras on the disc except a trailer. Weblinks are provided for those with DVD-ROM capabilities. It would have been nice to have a full-length commentary or at least an interview with Leigh on the disc, given the interesting conditions under which the film was produced; the budget was extremely limited and Leigh worked without a written script (he prepared one to send to Academy members when the film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay).
I've barely scratched the surface of this rich and deep film that deserves all the critical acclaim it has received. There's much more to say, for example, about the varied and subtle ways in which the members of Vera's family accept the news of her arrest. Those expecting a rehash of the abortion debate will be disappointed; those who expect a powerful and complex drama won't. The DVD is respectably presented, but without frills.
Verdict? This film will make any thinking person uncomfortable with dispensing verdicts.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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