Who Believes in Vera Drake? (with postscript of 11 Feb 05)

[This piece contains a spoiler, so don’t read it if you don’t want to know in advance what happens to the central character in the film. But in fact it’s completely predictable and indeed it has been widely revealed in countless reviews.]

Mike Leigh’s film about the downfall of the cheerful, benevolent back-street abortionist in 1950s post-war working-class Britain is hugely impressive, beautifully acted (especially by Imelda Staunton as the abortionist, on-screen almost throughout the film) and directed with Leigh’s usual sense of social realism, outrage and humanitarian concern.

Yet the more one thinks about Vera Drake after leaving the cinema, the more doubts begin to nag. Of course it’s impossible to dispute the central message – the cruelty of the blanket ban on abortion and the misery of the desperate girls and women driven as a result to often squalid back-street abortionists at a time when having an illegitimate baby was thought to bring unbearable shame: yet is that message truthfully and subtly conveyed? The portrayal of working-class life in England in the 1950s comes dangerously close to cliché, even parody, taking you back to those old black and white films and television series with Kathleen Harrison. There’s a fatal sentimentality lurking at its heart, isn’t there? At least one person I know, of working-class origins and familiar with 1950s London, thought it patronising, and I see what she meant.

Imelda Staunton as the cheerful abortionist Posted by Hello

And the character of Vera Drake: can anyone regularly performing back-street, illegal abortions for 20 years or more really have been so unremittingly cheerful, virtuous, unselfish and high-minded, never accepting a penny for her services, motivated only by the desire to help girls and women in trouble? How could she have continued in these crimes (for that’s what they were) for week after week, year after year, without her own family ever suspecting what she was up to, indeed without setting gossipy tongues wagging that would have led to her arrest and conviction long before the story asks us to believe actually happened? And the actual abortions, shown in the film just as Vera assures her customers they will be: a simple and straightforward procedure, more uncomfortable than painful, pretty well guaranteed to succeed, not involving any real risk. Could Vera’s home-made abortion kit, never properly sterilised, really have been in use for more than 20 years before any of her customers died as a result, leading to investigations which would have led straight to her door? According to the film, it’s only after 20 years of abortions that a customer of Vera’s first suffers a severe reaction to what has been done to her, and even then she miraculously recovers. Pull the other one! Sentimentality again, surely?

Then one begins to reconsider Staunton’s performance. It seems grippingly realistic at the time. Yet it’s actually a performance on only two notes: the cheerful, chirpy, Pollyanna charlady who does abortions on the side in the first half of the film, and then the sobbing, inarticulate, disgraced and ruined saint in the second. How much more moving if Vera’s motives had been shown to have been even slightly mixed, as surely an illegal abortionist’s motives would have had to be in the real world: or if there had been some indication of the inevitable squalor and danger of the procedures she was carrying out! All the selfishness, cynicism and greed involved are cannily ascribed to the woman Lily (played by Ruth Sheen) who refers pregnant women to Vera, “a viper whose mendacity and viciousness Vera never suspects” (in the words of the plot summary in IMDB). More sentimentality, in fact. Abortion actually raises difficult moral and ethical questions which are inescapably complex; here the moral issue is presented as simple. This is a movie that ought to have been made in black and white.

It’s a remarkable film, with many qualities, and it’s certainly not to be missed. But it’s flawed by an all-pervading sentimentality at its heart: not the great movie that it might have been.

PS: A friend has sent me this (fair) comment:

“I don’t really dissent from any of this, but might add that:

1) someone was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 recently who claimed to have known just such an abortionist, who did the deed from humanitarian motives and didn’t ask for any money. We must beware of projecting our own cynical or materialistic values on a period which was simpler, less mercenary and more imbued with public spirit in the post-war era (and I don’t think it sentimentality to believe that);

2) I knew exactly such a cheery, every-helpful, ever-obliging, slightly simple woman in my childhood; she was our next-door neighbour in Leeds (though actually Welsh herself) and I spent about as much time at her house as at home.

3) Mike Leigh’s mother was a midwife, and he must have known about the conditions of the time; do you think he was deliberately falsifying them? Not impossible, and done to strengthen his message – though, as you say, it actually weakens it.

“I particularly agree about the time period. This is so implausible that one has to ask why Leigh chose it. Why not make it 10 years, or even 5? I guess one could make a similar case on abortion whatever the period. On the other hand you have to remember that Vera’s husband was away at the war, her children quite small, and her sister-in-law hostile for quite a lot of that period. And since they couldn’t conceive of her doing it, why should they suspect? Gossipy neighbours are another matter…

“My guess at Vera’s motives, hinted at in the film – but Imelda Staunton refuses to divulge the back-story they invented in rehearsal – is that she had a traumatic abortion herself and consequently felt some obligation to prevent others suffering the same.

“A film which creates such controversy must be worthwhile!”


2 Responses

  1. Paul Sida-Miccio says:

    An excellent film both entertaining and educational, if for nothing more than raising the controversial yet very real issue of choice for women.  Abortion must remain legal, and the right for a woman to maintain control over her body must be guaranteed legally in this country (the United States) and abroad.  Laws to the contrary only serve to endanger women not help them.

    I am not familiar with the actors, directors or producers etc. behind this film, but applaud them for bringing to the screen such a delicate issue as abortion.  I have never taken the time to comment publicly or to document such commentary (as I am doing now) on a film before-so moved was I after this film that I immediately went from my living room to my computer to learn more about Vera Drake.  Was she a fictional character, or non-fictional?  Vera Drake herself maybe fictional, but her character lives on today in many nations and in many cultures across the world.

    God bless those like her and those women seeking her help.

  2. Joan says:

    Having spoken to midwives of the period film portrays, only the clinical details lack credibility.  No doubt, with Mike Leigh's Mother being a Midwife, she would confirm that at this time, there was a 'Vera Drake' and a 'Lily' in every neighbourhood, often seemingly respectable women; the last people you would associate with such practices.  One ex-midwife I spoke with told me how she had to leave the cinema as the film elicited too many horrible memories of cleaning up the mess of these back-street 'Gamps'.  Such was the shame of illegitimate pregnancy at this time, many girls attempted suicide (also a crime in them days) although some did seek the help of religious orders, who in their own misguided ways, did what they perceived to be the best for the poor girl.  I agree the film was patronising towards the working classes of that era, but so many of these films are.  It's something producers need to work on. However, the film is a British classic by Leigh, who isn't afraid to push the boundaries of social issues in his productions, and employs only the finest actors to do this.

    Brian writes:  Thank you for this, Joan.  I agree with virtually everything you say, except that I don't believe that in 21st century Britain one can realistically describe the making of a film about back-street abortions 60 years ago as "pushing the boundaries of social issues."  That might be truly said of a film about, say, the suffering caused by the religiously-inspired, cruel and unwarranted prohibition of abortions after the foetus has supposedly developed to the point of theoretical viability outside the womb, and the lengths to which desperate women are driven to try to circumvent this indefensible ban without going outside the law.  That might push the boundaries a little.  But a film that expresses indignation about a wrong that was largely righted several decades ago can't help looking a little self-indulgent.  One might just as well make a film denouncing the cruelty of executing heretics by burning them at the stake.