Mike Leigh’s ‘Vera Drake,’ is set in Islington, 1950. Surprise, surprise, this ain't no nostalgia trip. It’s a world not far removed from Orwell’s 1930’s ‘Down and Out In Paris and London’ with his amazement at an English working class ability to subsist on regular doses of bread and tea. The dry taste of soda bread, the smell of dampness and the comfort of a 'cuppatay' is as palpable as the scars of war staring blankly from the eyes of shell shocked characters like Reg (Eddie Marsan) who having lost his mother to the blitz lives a bachelors life on ‘bread and drippings’. Rationing is still a reality, nylons are traded for smokes and parasitical black marketers and creditors make a fortune door to door, in neighbourhoods perpetually clouded in grey.
Struggling to make a wage and maintain a family amidst this is Vera Drake, played by Imelda Staunton. The role has left her with a bucket of awards and nominations, which in turn have generated a huge popular awareness about the film. Head bowed, Vera ambles along in a mole like existence cleaning the mansions of rich caricatures, oblivious to her existence, and obsessed with their own stunted and dysfunctional lives. Vera is reduced to the background in these scenes, leaving us lingering glimpses of the upper crust, in sharp contrast to Vera’s life in a Coronation Street like landscape suffering from a bad dose of the Richey Edwards. Leaving through side exits, she again emerges as the centre of attention. Carrying for her bed ridden mother, comforting a depressed neighbour over-burdened with the weight of seven children and an alcoholic husband. She chirpily jokes with her own family, there’s tea and more tea and along the way she finds time to set up her own misfit daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly), a perpetual site of piss taking, with a shell shocked Reg to their mutual delight.
It’s obvious from the film tag line ‘Wife, Mother, Criminal’ where the film is going, and as a result it takes on the atmosphere of thriller as time ticks away to the credits. You are expectant. This is a film about a back street abortionist with Madonna like qualities. Vera’s activities as a back street abortionist are normalised to the audience very early on, spliced with her role as a caring mother and neighbour. With her makeshift equipment of lye soup, disinfectant, hot water, rubber syringe appearing from a tea box to help women "what find themselves in the family way" the implications remain firmly in the background. Vera takes no payment for her "operations." Her two-faced black-market friend Lily (Ruth Sheen) who gives the addresses of women needing help does however, but without Vera’s knowledge. Leigh describes how ‘film should aspire, in a sense, to the condition of documentary’ and Vera Drake is a modern moment of silently delving into a very secret world. ‘She is doing something that thousands of people, mostly women, in all societies in all times have done’ Leigh states in one interview. That is helping others control their reproduction when they are incapable of dealing with the pressures of another child. Abortion is part of reality, and reality isn’t all that dramatic.
As a narrative, most of the plot development is about the relationship of Reg and Ethel, both caricatures that wouldn’t seem out of place in The League of Gentlemen. Many reviewers have overlooked the fact that the film elicits numerous titters from cinema audiences awkwardly relishing in the couples fumblings as infantilised adults seeking to overcome their loneliness. The crass upward mobility of Vera’s sister in law adds a further humorous dimension. Then there is a sudden shift in focus two thirds in, as a young girl nearly dies after Vera helps her. A knock on the door from the cops comes in the middle of a moment of family celebration after Reg and Ethel’s engagement. Vera is arrested for an activity her family were totally unaware of and in her criminalisation the authorities devastate a working class homestead. Her muteness and inability to overcome emotion and to control words after arrest is an expression of powerlessness in the face of a British establishment that is damning her. Yet half way through the film the plot temporarily follows the world of Susan, a daughter of one of Vera’s employers and we see another face of the same British establishment. Though displaying a similar powerlessness to Vera in the face of a quizzing psychiatrist, after a rape, Susan can obtain an abortion legally for £100. Leigh drives home the class dynamic of the issue, using Reg, repeatedly portrayed as the dimmest character to deliver the most important lines of the script ‘It's all right if you're rich, but if you can't feed 'em, you can't love 'em."
Leigh uses a Caryl Churchill-esque production method of involving the cast collectively in the development of the plot and characters. For Vera Drake they were given a brief character biography and asked to develop them unaware of the plot until a later date, the result is great performances all round I guess. Yet, ignoring the controversial subject matter, overall Vera Drake could sit comfortably on the RTE winter schedule alongside such dramatisations as ‘Amongst Women’ or ‘Tales of A Raggy Boy.’ In that sense it is a very normal drama with its strength firmly in its subject matter. The past explored in this film is indeed another country, but for us Irish the issues raised are as pertinent as ever. Be horrified at the inhumanity and class dimension of the 1950’s British attitude to abortion. But don’t ponder too long though; they got over it we’re still stuck with it.
Labels: Abortion Rights, Class, Film