Vera Drake (Leigh, 2004) — 10 Years Later

Vera Drake has a 92% “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes. It garnered three Academy Award nominations, two for Mike Leigh (directing and screenwriting) and one for Imelda Staunton (Actress in a Leading Role). It is the product of creative talents who are still active and respected in the industry. Leigh’s biopic, Mr. Turner, is one of the more eagerly awaited films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Staunton’s been in three Harry Potter movies and guested on Doctor Who since playing the meek abortionist. The film won Leigh a Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival. It also cleaned up at the BAFTA and London Critics Circle Awards.

Even so, go Googling “best films of 2004″ and Vera Drake tends to elicit an “oh, yeah, and that, too” response rather than any genuine enthusiasm. Is this an example of an over-praised issue film that time has revealed to be more average than spectacular? Or is Vera Drake a legitimately great film that languishes near the bottom of rental queues because audiences have grown more impatient with movies that don’t have a car chase every ten minutes?

What I Said Then

I didn’t review the film in its initial release, noting in my end-of-year roundup that it had not trickled down from the festival circuit to the local cinemas outside of New York and Los Angeles. When I eventually did see the film, I either did not have much to add to the chorus of praises or feel strongly enough to be the vocal nay-sayer.

What I Say Now

One thing hasn’t changed in ten years: abortion is still a polarizing and politically charged subject. One wishes that one could review films on such subjects without one’s own views being called into question, though my experience reviewing Lake of Fire makes me realize such hopes are naive. For the record, then, I’ve mostly identified as a pro-choice person who thinks we (i.e. Americans) could probably stand a few more regulations about abortion, although I have referred to myself  as “pro-life” at least once on this blog. That ambivalent enough?

Vera Drake eschews argument, which I would normally say is a good thing, but what we are left with is a woman whose moral goodness (and the goodness of her cause) is assumed rather than demonstrated. When Vera’s son says “It’s wrong though, ain’t it?” she replies, “I don’t think so.” When the police charge her with performing an abortion she says, “That’s not what I do, that’s what you call it…” She calls it “helping” young women, and that’s about the extent of the film’s attempts to debate the issue. The film lets these exchanges stand as though all debates are always and only unresolvedly rhetorical in essence. Win the battle of terminology and you win the debate. There’s something prescient about that, anticipating the twenty-four hour news cycles and talking points that get deconstructed on the next day’s news or comedy shows, but the film doesn’t seem to be consciously utilizing or satirizing such a political strategy.

The unwillingness to mount a defense (Vera pleads guilty)  insulates the film against charges of propaganda, but in doing so it also precludes the film from making an affirmative justification of Vera and her practice. When, Vera, in prison, meets other convicted abortionists she is horrified by their rough, frank demeanor and she (and the film) insist there is something different about her. What that something is never gets articulated, though, and that’s a problem. At times, I wondered if Vera were supposed to be Forrest Gump’s lost twin, or something. a canary in our cultural coal mine rather than a foot soldier in the culture wars.

Perhaps more attentive viewers might have been able to piece together enough of Vera’s home life to conjecture about why she performs illegal abortions and how she got started. The only real suggestion I saw was that the camera stayed on Vera’s face when one of the women she is “helping” says “I’m a terrible person.” By giving us a reaction-shot, the film appears to suggest that the presence of such acute suffering is so painful to Vera that she is compelled by force of sympathy to act. But how she came to start such a practice so that she could be around to witness such outpourings is a lot less clear.

Without much in the way of character development, the film becomes a procedural for its last hour or so. Is Vera’s horror when told that one woman almost died due to complications arising from her procedure meant to imply she has never encountered or anticipated such dangers in the past? Is she naive or stupid? At the film’s conclusion, we are unsure if she still feels justified in what she did and whether she intends to continue performing abortions once she is released from prison.

The Verdict 

Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky was one of my favorite films of 2008, but I confess the admiration for Vera Drake puzzles me. Or, rather, I should say that the nearly uniform admiration for the film puzzles me. I would certainly have expected a few more critics who are more passionately or publicly against abortion than I am to have bristled at the script’s heavy-handed card-stacking. Maybe there were complaints along political lines and I just didn’t notice them. (I was in a pretty liberal area in 2004.) Or maybe this is the sort of film that had it been an American studio release would have garnered more complaint. Perhaps as art house fare, it was the type of film, (pre-streaming saturation) that one had to go out of one’s way to see, making it unlikely that those most likely to be irritated by it would bother. One participant at a discussion forum I frequent mentions getting a DVD rental of the film in the mail via Netflix, a reminder that even if movies haven’t changed much in the last ten years, the way we watch them sure has.

About Kenneth R. Morefield

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