Mike Leigh's story of a working-class abortionist in Fifties London treads a fine line between storytelling and polemicising.
Vera Drake, the latest film from Mike Leigh, has won prizes for best film and actress at the Venice Film Festival, and star Imelda Staunton is widely tipped for an Oscar nomination for her moving, nuanced performance.
Unlike most of Leigh’s work, the film is explicitly issue-led. It tells the story of Vera (played by Staunton), a backstreet abortionist in fifties London, who is prosecuted after a woman she helps is taken to hospital. Performing an abortion was a criminal offence until the 1967 Abortion Act, carrying a minimum sentence of 18 months. Leigh is adamant that the film is a drama rather than a polemic. ‘First of all, my job is to present you with the moral dilemma which you have to confront. I don’t think these things are black and white’, he says.
The film begins slowly, as we follow Vera in her daily routine. She rushes from one cleaning job to another, and works with the energy of someone who believes that work has a moral value of its own. She stops to make tea and plump cushions for some of her elderly neighbours, and rushes home in time to cook for her family. This consists of husband Stan and two grown-up children, Sid and Ethel; and we learn their stories while we wait for Vera’s to begin. Stan works as a mechanic for his brother, and the financial implications of being an employee rather than partner are clearly a source of embarrassment for both men. Sid is a genial tailor’s assistant, who trades nylons for cigarettes at the pub. Ethel is meek and mousy, and Vera finds time to set her up with Reg, a good-natured neighbour who is possibly even shyer.
With the languid pace that Leigh fans will be used to, the film lays out these and other stories, without hinting at the revelations to come. Half an hour in, we learn Vera’s secret: one of the ways in which she helps people out is by performing abortions for working-class women, free of charge. These are organised by Lily, a hard-faced wheeler-dealer, who neglects to tell Vera that she charges the girls two pounds for the service. Alongside this, we see Susan, the daughter of one of Vera’s wealthy cleaning clients, who finds herself pregnant after a date rape. With the help of her aunt, she pays a hundred pounds for a legal abortion through a psychiatrist. The film’s suggestion is clear: criminalising abortion only prevents the poor from getting treated.
Vera Drake marks the latest progression in Leigh’s career, as it is visually far more impressive than any of his previous work, which too often betrays his years in TV. The period detail is meticulous, and the film uses its locations and details to powerful effect; in one scene in particular the cramped nature of Vera’s house is central to the tension of the scene.
A more traditional Leigh strength is the quality of the acting, which comes from months of improvisation and rehearsal. Imelda Staunton gives a career-making performance, presenting Vera as a meek, anxious woman, who doesn’t see the value of thinking too much. Staunton is likely to win the plaudits, and perhaps the Oscar, but the supporting cast is equally accomplished. As a result, every scene in the film carries the simple pleasure of watching first-class actors at work.
Leigh is also renowned for his dialogue, which is consistently authentic and loaded with comic repetition and misunderstanding. Characters rarely speak directly of the thing that’s on their minds, so the scenes are charged with subtext, and this gives the actors freedom to reveal character in more subtle and expressive ways. This is most apparent in the charming scene when Reg plucks up the courage to propose to Ethel. On the page, this scene might make Reg look a brute, as the proposal is distinctly unromantic. However, on film, the contrast between the characters’ inability to communicate, and their obvious tender feelings for each other, give the scene a genuine emotional power.
This is Leigh’s most impressive film to date – and yet despite its obvious strengths it lacks the emotional impact of some of his other work, like Life Is Sweet and Secrets And Lies. The problem is in the story, which is relentlessly gloomy and downbeat, and lacks the moments of breakdown and reconciliation that were so crucial to previous successes. Those films were entirely character-driven, but in Vera Drake the presence of an ‘issue’ is too apparent, and the film’s message is direct and heavy-handed.
As a result, the film refuses any opportunities to allow Vera a moment of triumph or struggle. Instead, she becomes a martyr, and as she becomes passive we start to lose sympathy for her. Leigh may not think so, but Vera Drake is a polemic, and suffers accordingly.