Director: Mike Leigh
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a final rule that favors “conscience rights” over the law. This rule protects healthcare providers from being denied employment or being fired for refusing to administer abortions, emergency contraception, or certain forms of birth control on religious or moral grounds—essentially giving pharmacists, physicians, and other healthcare providers conscientious objector status.
Hundreds of thousands of comments opposing this rule were submitted to HHS, in part because the rule does not require healthcare providers in private practice to inform women of their options. All supporters of a woman’s right to an abortion and the contraceptive method of her choice fear that reproductive health will be compromised and that unsafe, back alley abortions could again multiply. Those favoring the rule believe, at the very least, that it is wrong to discriminate against caregivers who cannot in good conscience prescribe birth control that takes place after conception, such as the morning-after pill or an IUD, or practice abortion. The perennially contentious battle over reproductive rights makes Vera Drake, a brilliantly realized tragedy set in England in 1950, a perennially timely film that looks at the issue from all sides with a good deal of—though not complete—objectivity.
Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is a woman in her 60s who is the “heart of gold” at the center of her happy, working-class family. She is in a loving, 27-year marriage to Stan (Philip Davis) and has a close relationship with her grown son Sid (Daniel Mays) and her plain-Jane daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly), both of whom still live at home. Stan works for his beloved younger brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough) at Frank’s auto repair shop. Frank’s wife Joyce (Heather Craney) is an upwardly mobile housewife who forces Frank to spoil her and disdains her husband’s working-class family.
Vera cleans the homes of the well-to-do, looks after her homebound mother, and unbeknownst to her family, “helps” girls who are unhappily pregnant “start their bleeding” again. Vera’s “partner” in this endeavor, Lily (Ruth Sheen), schedules Vera’s carbolic soap abortions to fit between her work and her domestic duties. Lily charges the abortion seekers two guineas; Vera takes no money at all for what she sees as a benevolent service and has no idea that Lily is profiting from it. Lily “pays” Vera by offering her discounts on hard-to-find foodstuffs in an England still recovering from World War II; she buys the goods with her abortion fees.
Vera has played matchmaker for her daughter by inviting the thoroughly decent, but shy Reg (Eddie Marsan) around for dinner. Reg and Ethel’s relationship prospers, and by Thanksgiving, both Stan’s and Frank’s households are in for some good news. Reg and Ethel are engaged, confounding Stan’s belief that they’d be courting for years, and Joyce and Frank are expecting a baby. The family is in the middle of their celebrations when a knock at the door changes everything; the police have come to arrest Vera for performing an abortion on one Pamela Barnes (Liz White), who developed serious complications that brought her near death.
Vera Drake is one of the very rare films that presents a social issue on thoroughly human terms. Vera is an efficient, energetic presence, happily making the rounds of the homes she tends and the sick she nurses. Mike Leigh and Imelda Staunton set the tone at the very beginning of the movie as his camera follows her on her rounds—she walking crisply up stairs, her rapid, decisive footfalls reflecting her sense of purpose, her insertion of keys into door locks just as crisp—a telling detail indicating the trust her charges place in her. In each home, Leigh lingers longer than other directors might to emphasize that Vera isn’t just rushing through the day, but rather takes time to provide sustenance for the souls of her invalids. Even in the home of one of her wealthy employers, Mrs. Wells (Leslie Manville), she chats pleasantly to the half-listening lady of the house as she vigorously polishes brass fireplace irons while on her knees. The physical positions of the two women in this scene are no accident.
Leigh wishes to contrast the treatment of a wealthy girl in trouble with that of the poor girls Vera tends. Mrs. Wells’ daughter Susan (Sally Hawkins), is a quiet, proper girl who is raped by a drunken date. When she finds herself in trouble, she contacts an acquaintance (Fenella Woolgar) and tells her the “a friend of mine” story before dissolving into frightened tears. Her acquaintance provides her with the name of a doctor and advises her to invent a crazy aunt; the psychiatrist to whom the doctor will refer her will want proof of mental instability to recommend a therapeutic abortion. For 100 guineas, Susan is set up in a private nursing facility and tended to by an efficient staff of nurses.
By contrast, Vera’s girls are a mixed bag—from young girls, to an adulterous wife, an overburdened mother with an already large brood, and a woman who uses abortion as after-the-fact contraception. Her first client in the movie is frightened but compliant, and has to slam the door on the man who knocked her up—the suggestion is that he might be abusive to her—as Vera is leaving. The second is a “darkie,” probably a prostitute who will be unable to earn a living if she’s pregnant, who is all alone and afraid something will go wrong. Vera reassures her in a rather clipped manner using language we hear again and again over the course of the five abortions Leigh films. The caring depersonalization shows us how Vera maintains a psychological distance that allows her to break the law and keep her activities entirely secret from her family. It also allows her to say to the police, when they interrogate her, that none of her girls has ever gotten sick before. Perhaps she really believes it. She doesn’t seem to know any other abortionists with whom to compare notes; it is only in prison that she learns from two other abortionists that their girls died and that they are in for a second stretch.
The police detectives and female patrol officer (a wonderful Helen Coker) are extremely decent in this film. After finding out from Pamela Barnes’ rather uncooperative mother Jessie (Lesley Sharp) about Vera—the coincidence of Vera and Jessie working at the same laundry 20 years before does her in—they spend time in the Drake home talking with Vera in private. “I know why you’re here,” she says in a quiet, choked voice. We watch this seemingly angelic woman crumble right before our eyes. Her movements become slow, her gait unsteady, her back stooped, her voice muted. Completely in character with her desire to help people, she is utterly compliant with the police and produces her abortion kit without complaint.
Detective Inspector Webster (Peter Wight) does his duty and believes in preventing young girls from dying at the hands of amateur abortionists—how he feels about the act of abortion itself is never explored—but he’s aware of the tragedy of the situation. He is as gentle with Vera and her anxious family as he possibly can be and guesses that Vera defines abortion as helping girls because she herself was in trouble. Vera never confirms this, and we know that she doesn’t know who her father was, so it may be that she is simply the product of an unintended pregnancy, possibly through incest. Nonetheless, Vera has in some way walked in the shoes of the girls she tends and feels that without her, their lives could become intolerable. She’s probably right.
Seeing the contrast between the experience of Vera’s girls and Susan emphasizes the two-tiered justice of the haves and the have-nots. Neither abortion is legal, but Susan’s does exemplify the exception for which conservatives seem to make a bit of room—rape or incest. Money buys safety, and the social position of reputable doctors goes a long way in guaranteeing their safety from investigation. Still, Vera has been providing abortions for “a long time,” so the community she serves also wishes to protect her. She’s all they’ve got. Without money or influence, they either have to give birth or try to perform an abortion on themselves, which usually is ineffective or has dire consequences. (A picture I saw of a dead woman, Gerri Santoro, who did just this haunts me still.)
From the point at which Vera is arrested, the film is extremely hard to watch. All of the actors give soul-searing performances; I’ve got a lump in my throat now just thinking about their anguish, about how a happy family was destroyed by the legal and financial barriers to abortion that made Vera do what she did. Yet, she is not an innocent in this drama. Whether or not you think abortion is murder, there’s no question that even well-meaning abortionists kill women—and let’s face it, illegal abortionists weren’t and aren’t the angels of mercy Vera seems to be (see 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days  for a more realistic look at an abortionist). It is for this very reason that so many worked so hard to make abortion legal, and continue to fight to keep it available. It’s a fact that women will always seek abortions if they feel they need to; as a society, we continue to grapple with the question of whether they have the right to an abortion or whether they ought to be left to stew in their own juices. Vera Drake presents the issue of abortion and the conditions under which women seek one and asks its audience not to argue and picket, but rather to step into their shoes and understand their pain and frustration.