It seems slightly sadistic to recommend a movie during TV Turnoff week
, but here goes!
is a phenomenal piece of film-making. It is the fictional story (though based on many similar true accounts) of a "back-street" abortionist in 1950's Britain.
Vera is a kind a generous person, struggling to make ends meet on post-war rations. She cleans for the wealthy, cares for her Mum and looks after anyone she can, including the poor young man across the way who eats Bread and gravy for dinner. (She invites him to join the family for an evening meal and he ends up engaged to her daughter.)
I had worried that the film would be suggeting that Vera Drake (and those like her) was some kind of heroinne, ahead of her time in rejecting old-fashioned morals. Actually, that would be a really shallow reading of the film. She is kind and thinks what he is doing is just "helping out young ladies who get themselves into trouble." But the film never suggests that she is right to do so.
The Police almost seem to regret arresting her because she genuinely thinks she's just helping, but they can see how misguided she is. (And we see this too, but I can't say more on that without spoiling the plot.) There are no oppressive authorities stopping her acts of mercy, simply kind-hearted Police and Magistrates protecting the public.
The acting, especially Imelda Staunton as Vera, is simply incredible. I can think of few British films in recent times that match the quality of Staunton's acting here. There is an almost comedic switch from her happy and carefree do-gooder to the distraught woman facing arrest, but that is never over the top. In fact, it's quite remarkable that the film never slips into melodrama; that really is quite a feat.
is delightfully clever. You'll notice that Vera's cramped living quarters are amplified by the Camera always being close up and almost squashing the actors against the wall, whereas when a scene takes place in her rich emplorer's homes the scene is spacious and the camera roams freely.
The film certainly doesn't "glorify" or justify abortion. (Vatican Radio actually came out in support of the film!) The only women who don't seem horribly affected by it are portrayed as cold and shallow. Vera Drake
perfectly captures Mike Leigh's - the Director's - own ambivilence towards the topic. Vera is a good person, but isn't what she's doing wrong? It's taking a life (as Leigh himself has said), but is it always wrong. This dilema is acted-out before us in a fascinating manner.
In one sense this isn't a film about abortion at all (because abortion is
legal in the film, it's just very expensive and out of reach of most women). It might be argued that this is actually about the differences between rich and poor and how their lives intersect but each is "trapped" within their own system. And then there is the recurring theme of hypocrisy. The rich (and poor) are shocked and disgusted at Vera's actions, whilst condoning those of rich Doctors and Psychiatrists that perform the same act, but for money.
Or maybe it's really about the great British discovery: the therapeutic power of a cuppa Tea!