Vera Drake vividly portrays the paradoxes of backstreet abortion without passing judgement.
Dilemmas of a Bleeding Heart
Director Mike Leigh’s latest effort continues his career-long depiction of ordinary British people struggling with intolerable situations, examining the effects of mundane circumstances on personality, relationships and the strategies we fashion to cope. Much of his work illuminates troubling social issues in the fine grain of individual pain and intransigent immediate environments (1). Vera Drake likewise tackles head-on the implications of backstreet abortion – and even though the film (like Leigh) is emphatically pro-choice, it has been acclaimed equally by liberals, feminists and religious and conservative opponents (2). So it’s worth outlining first the broad contours of an approach able to sidestep easy categorisation and pat political prescription.
Early television work hilariously caricatured the grotesque aspirations of 1970s suburban new middle classes, puncturing the pretensions arising from their socio-economic (and other) insecurities (3). Leigh heightened the vicious comic effect via a tortuous scripting, improvisation and rehearsal process involving cast members endlessly exaggerating individual tics and stock phrases to the point of outrageous stereotype. Realism, naturalism and complexity in the acting seemed sacrificed to exploitative melodramatic excess – courting accusations ever since of misanthropically ridiculing hapless victims (especially lower class characters, given the long and continuing history of contempt reserved for us in most UK mainstream and ‘alternative’ comedy).
But, despite posing considerable dangers for his progressive and humanistic intentions, Leigh’s method developed into a unique cinematic technique reflecting more generally on the hopelessness and despair inherent in contemporary society (4). Stories of abject damaged souls juggle personal inadequacy, social fragility and economic necessity. Emphasising complicated class positions and mobility (rather than the traditional ‘kitchen sink’ industrial working class), Leigh hints that we are all fucked-up and stuck – money, status and power merely altering the parameters of complacency used to avoid acknowledging it. Nevertheless, the most cruelly lampooned working class characters often have more potential – for empathy and generosity and as catalysts of change. Precariously balancing destructiveness towards self and others with small victories and revelations, room to manoeuvre is carved out – thanks to social networks that facilitate a loosening of the external repression of conformism and the internal repression which forges rigid and defensive patterns of behaviour and expression. The drama is always harrowing, though, and Vera Drake is that in spades.
A Low Vera
Diverging from Leigh’s usual conventions in two important ways, the new film is not contemporary (5) but set among the claustrophobic interiors, postwar privations and equally constricting social mores of 1950s North London. Also, the eponymous heroine (a powerful performance from Imelda Staunton) and her close-knit, devoted family6 have none of the visible flaws and conflicts that usually get hammed up. Vera seems perfectly happily adapted to her multiple social support roles: paid to clean middle class households; housewife; carer for bed-bound neighbours and relatives; … and backstreet abortionist. Narrative tension looms from the illegal and secretive nature of the latter; meanwhile all activities are conducted in the same brisk, cheery, routinised manner, with cliches and homilies many will recognise (e.g. the ubiquitous ‘nice cup of tea’). The arrest, trial and prison sentence of this selfless altruist is a personal tragedy mirroring those of various desperate pregnant clients she ‘helps out’ (because no one else will) – differing conspicuously from the daughter of one of her employers, who sails through the official rigmarole available to those able to pay.
The sequences depicting both classes of abortion scenarios are meticulously true to real-life experiences (7) – and the staging, visual design and camerawork accurately evoke the general mood of ordinary daily life at the time. The film aims to propose, as minimally as possible, the grass-roots ethical quandary of unwanted pregnancy and the woman-centred communal knowledges and practices which have evolved, in all of recorded history, in response. The choice of period avoided unnecessary complications – such as the profiteering and otherwise corrupt conduct accompanying the involvement of feral medics and criminal organisations as demand skyrocketed through the 1950s and 60s (8). And the Drakes’ sheer humdrum respectability – almost to the point of the complete absence of anything resembling opinions or conscious reflection – undercuts all questions of ideology, religion and other moralising discourses which tend to saturate and conceal the immediate physical and emotional dilemma facing the women involved.
Vera’s dignity and equilibrium unravel when confronted with the gravity of her actions, with the film demonstrating that no solution can be found in simplistic moral terms. The suffering of women stripped of control over bodily reproduction will inevitably be exacerbated by the cruelty of organised coercion – therefore safe abortion is a pragmatic mortal necessity. However, neither glib permissiveness and liberal rights nor the moral fascisms of religion, State, political correctness or the cosy bulwark of respectable righteousness can wish away the trauma and anguish of decisions to terminate potential human life. In a current climate of reactionary clamour for certainty encouraged by diverse powerful political interests, these are both important messages. But Vera Drake also resonates strongly with Leigh’s underlying preoccupations – the contradictions between the surface cleanliness of conformity to social norms and expectations and the messy reality of people’s lives. The negotiation of these gaps and fractures flirts with frustration and farce in blending honesty and directness, spontaneous warmth, conviviality and generosity of spirit. Most of all, the chances of mobilising these resources in working through life’s quagmires increase the further down the slippery slope of class stratification you go – less encumbered with maintaining face, taste and superiority. But, crucially, only if the Drakes’ stultifying paralysis – suffocating debate and difference under a blanket of bourgeois decorum – is collectively resisted.
1. such as bulimia (Life Is Sweet, 1990), adoption (Secrets And Lies, 1995), homelessness (Naked, 1993), and dementia (High Hopes, 1988).
2. including in fundamentalist America and Catholic Europe. Vera Drake is dedicated to Leigh’s midwife and GP parents.
3. notably Nuts In May (1976) and Abigail’s Party (1977).
4. also in Bleak Moments (1971), Meantime (1983), Career Girls (1997) and All Or Nothing (2002).
5. neither was the tedious turn-of-the-century Topsy-Turvy (1999) about operetta composers Gilbert & Sullivan.
6. loving husband Stan (Phil Davis), employed as a mechanic by his brother; upwardly-mobile tailor’s assistant son Sid (Daniel Mays); and painfully-shy factory worker daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly).
7. according to a friend who suffered both types shortly before abortion was legalised in 1967. However, Vera’s method – flushing the uterus with soapy water – is shown as relatively benign; but is actually just as agonising and life-threatening as knitting needles etc.
8. only suggested by procurer Joyce (Heather Craney) who, unbeknownst to Vera, charges clients two guineas for her services.
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 3, February 2005.
For other essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: