Vera Drake (2004): Mike Leigh’s Tale of Abortionist, Starring Imelda Staunton

How do you show the human side of abortion, one of the most controversial and divisive issues of our times?  How do you present an illegal operation (in England until 1967) in a realistic yet detached mode, without being judgmental or taking sides?

These challenges are met by Mike Leigh in Vera Drake, a moving drama based on the real life of an ordinary woman who sidelined as an abortionist in London circa 1950.

Tough and relentlessly grim, Vera Drake is not as brilliant and angry as Naked, or as emotionally satisfying and cathartic as Secrets & Lies, Leigh’s most popular film to date. But it avoids the pitfalls of several Leigh films in which he came close to condescending to his characters. If Vera Drake is frustrating at times, it’s only because countless American pictures have conditioned us to getting simplistic answers to morally complex problems, to seeing clearly defined heroes and villains in predictable stories with uplifting endings. In Vera Drake, Leigh shows that moral clarity is rarely the stuff of truth, and almost never the stuff of great drama. Indeed, ambiguity and transformation are the essence of Vera Drake.

Since American filmmakers are simply afraid to tackle the issue of abortion, the subject has been relegated to the occasional, formulaic TV Movie of the Week. A fearlessly original filmmaker, Leigh refuses to use any conventional format for his emotionally harrowing story of a Good Samaritan who secretly engaged in illicit abortions. Refreshingly, Vera Drake is not a courtroom drama, not a sentimental woman’s picture, not a social-problem film, and not a biopicture.

Instead, Vera Drake is a riveting drama that raises relevant questions about crime and justice, individual versus family responsibility, self versus community. Rooted in British kitchen-sink realism, Vera Drake continues to explore Leigh’s interest in the injustices inherent in Britain’s rigid class system, the great divide between the haves and haves not, though unlike the political satire, High Hopes, in Vera Drake, Leigh’s leftist tendencies and politics in general remain in the background.

When first seen, Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) comes across as a physically unprepossessing middle-aged woman, happily married to Stan (Phil Davis), a mechanic in his brother’s garage, and the devoted mother of an apprentice tailor son, Sid (Daniel Mays), and a light-bulb factory worker daughter, Ethel (Alex Kelly). Constantly on the run, Vera is full of energy. Along with her work as a cleaner of well-to-do houses, she helps out neighbors, visits her elderly invalid mother, then tirelessly tending to her family’s needs.

The warmth with which Leigh depicts this happy nuclear family is unmistakable. The affection that he shows for his modest characters comes in a sharper focus when he contrasts them with the crass suburban materialism of Joyce, Vera’s sister-in-law, who looks down on the Drakes.

Vera gets her patients’ addresses from Lily (Ruth Sheen), an old friend who now operates a black market service for items like tea and sugar, which are still in short supply in post-war England. Vera’s working class patients are contrasted with Susan, the daughter of a rich family, who gets pregnant in a date rape. After visits to a private doctor and a psychiatrist, Susan is referred to an expensive and discreet private clinic, while her parents are totally unaware of her ordeal.

In inducing miscarriages, Vera adopts a matter-of-fact approach with some maternal touches, though she never gets too close to her patients. After a few words of consolation and reassurance, she pulls a few items from her abortion kit, performs the operation, and then quietly leaves back to her family.

All goes well until one of Vera’s patients gets sick. During a gathering to celebrate Ethel’s engagement, the police arrive and arrest her. It turns out the family had no knowledge of Vera’s illicit activities, just as Vera was unaware of Lily’s financial gains from the abortions. It’s made abundantly clear that Vera was not paid for her services, and that her single motivation, as she repeatedly says, was “to help young girls out when they can’t manage.” Selfless to a fault, during her arrest and trial, Vera is more worried about her family than about her own fate. Reactions of the family members vary, from Vera’s determinedly optimistic and utterly stunned husband to conflicting emotions of her son Reg, who’s the least fazed.

The specific time and place are vividly evoked by Leigh’s regular cinematographer, Dick Pope. The movie is set in narrow alleys and shabby flats denied natural lighting; the color palette is dominated by brown and green. Pope’s precise and detached camerawork provides a perfect corollary to the film’s overall emotional tone.

Leigh has always been good at depicting intimate emotional interactions. It’s a testament to his spare writing and subtle direction that he avoids melodramatic confrontations. Notice Vera’s quiet confession to Stan, which Leigh shows without disclosing the nature of her words. Refusing to judge or to offer any simplistic explanation for Vera’s illegal activity, Leigh observes the nuances of her behavior with his customary watchful ears and eyes. But there’s a price to be paid for such a detached, nonjudgmental approach. Audiences have to work harder and figure out for themselves; only subtle hints are given about Vera’s psychological motivation to engage in abortions.

Leigh’s special turf is the underclass and undereducated, and Vera Drake, like other films, dissects the British class system mercilessly. In his new movie, he shows again his obsessive ear for the rhythm of everyday chat, for capturing the flux and messiness of ordinary life. However, compared with previous films, Vera Drake is a somber film with little humor, mostly in the early interactional scenes of the family members, and the courtship between the shy and frumpy Ethel and Reg.

The only conventional sequences in Vera Drake are those chronicling the ordeal of her criminal trial. Vera’s defense lawyer tries to emphasize her strong moral character and that she didn’t profit from her actions, but the judge uses Vera as an “example,” and sends her to prison for two and a half years. These are also the toughest – and most frustrating – scenes to watch due to Vera’s passivity, her total submission to the authorities and inability to fight back or to defend herself. The brief prison scenes are wonderfully observed, placing Vera in a broader context, and comparing her with two other inmates, both abortionists, who are serving longer sentences because their clients died. Suddenly, a portrait of one individual becomes part of a whole harsh system.

In Vera Drake, Leigh reveals himself as a sharp observer of two realities, the broader socio-political reality and the narrower reality of filmmaking itself. His meticulous scripts emerge from a long process of improvisation and research with his gifted ensembles. The stories are then brought to life by superlative actors chosen for their realism and distinct lack of glamour.

Staunton dominates the entire film in a tightly focused performance, demonstrating step by step the transformation of a cheerfully energetic woman into a tragic heroine, plagued by deep doubts about her entire existence. She shines as a sensitive woman with endless reserves of sympathy and generosity, determined to do the right thing yet defeated by a cruel, impersonal system.

Finally, how many filmmakers have the courage to end their films the way Leigh does Not with a close-up of a suffering Vera in jail, or a title card revealing her fate, but with a simple shot that shows Vera’s family sitting around the table at a complete loss for words. Emotionally wrenching and completely logical, this last image is indicative of Leigh’s objective yet humanistic, clinical though not cold, approach.