Two sides of the same desperate coin
For most of human history, only affluence could promise access to a safe abortion. England’s 1967 Abortion Act and the U.S. Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 spared working and poor women from risky, unpredictable and sometimes fatal procedures, reflecting real and symbolic shifts in British and American societies. But these days, Prime Minister Tony Blair has called for “another look” at the 1967 law; in America, the aftermath of Roe v. Wade has been a veritable civil cold war, with disagreement on the issue a bedrock of state divisions into red and blue.
Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, whose eponymous protagonist is a middle-aged, non-medical abortionist in 1950 London, puts the subject into terms of specific and personal morality. Vera’s actions — intended to “get girls out of trouble” — eventually bring the law down upon her. She’s repulsed when one of the arresting officers asks about money; her explanation is no more complex than her wish to help. Vera’s furtive ministrations are a far cry from the hygienic, discreet services available to Susan Wells (Sally Hawkins), for whose family Vera cleans; Susan’s desperation is no less acute than that of the women Vera assists. Susan’s risk, however, is not her life but that she might shame her prominent family.
Vera Drake is no portrait of an innocent, nor is Vera in denial. Instead, ending unwanted pregnancies is part of her life, all of a piece with the cozy home she makes for her family, her visits to neighborhood shut-ins, and her job sprucing up the houses of the well-to-do. Vera’s talent is for setting things to rights.
Despite their humble circumstances and cramped flat, the Drakes have a snug, welcoming household. As well as following Vera on her rounds, Leigh shows each member at their job: Vera’s husband Stan (Phil Davis) at his brother’s garage and their two adult children, Ethel (Alex Kelly), testing lightbulbs at a factory and Sid (Daniel Mays) sharpening his skills as a menswear salesman. Mending, whether of cars at the garage or clothes at home, is a metaphor for the Drakes’ very life; the furnishings and their flat have a much-used feeling, as if they’d been mended as well. Work, though unspectacular and sometimes unpaid, stabilizes and defines the family.
Like much of Leigh’s work, children and the parents who begot them are central. Even as it details the consequences of unprotected sex, Vera Drake celebrates courtship and conjugal love. Vera and Stan share a great deal of affection and Vera is unintentionally instrumental in Ethel’s engagement. She invites Reg (Eddie Marsan), a forlorn and lonely neighbor, to tea, gently urging Ethel to seat herself next to him on the sofa. The wordless scene of Ethel and Reg stepping out together in the park is one of the most affecting and one of the few instances in recent memory of meekness sympathetically portrayed on film.
More even than the phenomenal re-creation of post-war London, it’s a sense of place and rootedness that gives Vera Drake its authentic atmosphere. “What kind of war did you have?” is the opening volley in a vignette of male sympathy when loner Reg accepts Vera’s invite to tea. Leigh lingers on their immediate connection through suffering and “lost mates,” their conversion from a life of utmost violence to the restraint necessary in peacetime. The men’s open camaraderie makes a distinct contrast to the underground dealings of Vera’s secret life, her childhood friend Lilly (Ruth Sheen) both a black-marketeer and the source of Vera’s troubled clientele. Leigh also shows the upper-class world that parallels the Drakes’, to which Vera, always using the servants’ entrance, has entry but no access. Sketched in just a few scenes, Leigh conveys the class straitjacket of decorum and etiquette that effectively stifles the slightest emotion, the kind of world where even an unexpectedly sunny weekend throws Susan’s mother off. As played by Lesley Manville, Mrs. Wells terms the sun’s zeal “extraordinary,” imbuing the word with decades of disdain for unruliness of any kind.
Tea, the universal English balm shared by the upper and lower classes, has a very different value in each world. (The place of tea in British Isles life simply can’t be overstated; only compared, to some extent, with pasta in Italy or rice in Asia: the source of goodwill, sustenance, and comfort.) For Vera and her family, tea consoles; for the Wells and their set, it’s a ceremony, observed like everything else, with rigid formality. Confessing her dire situation to a friend at a tea salon, Susan remains gloved and hatted, barely moving even the muscles in her face.
This period accuracy never feels precious; Vera Drake doesn’t seem historical, only a different kind of present. Births, planned, unplanned and avoided, are a recurring theme in Leigh’s work, but to see Vera Drake as simply about abortion is to sell it very short. Vera’s situation is as talismanic of her time as another Leigh protagonist, Naked‘s Johnny (David Thewlis). Johnny begins on the run and remains in frantic motion, making his way from Manchester to London to visit an old girlfriend, maybe to persuade her to come back with him but meanwhile to sleep with her roommate and roam around the more post-apocalyptic ‘scapes of the city, making random connections. When asked at one point if he hasn’t somewhere to go, Johnny replies, “No, I’ve nowhere to stay.”
True to 1993 as Vera Drake is to 1950, Naked shows a working class that’s not working, its protagonist too educated to simply go along with the pointless jobs on offer. (Leigh pays attention to work here, too, but it’s stultifying: filing, waitressing, and guarding an empty office building.) Only Sebastian (Greg Cruttwell) represents the rich (and a kind of opposite number for Johnny), his casual brutality reminiscent of the boyfriend who knocks up Susan in Vera Drake, his disparaging, wickedly plosive laugh more telling than even his bestial behavior.
Symbolic images appear more frequently in Naked than in any other Leigh film to date, with many of the images evocative of birth. The narrow alley view that opens Naked suggests birth, even more so as the camera tightens in on Johnny’s sexual assault. Fleeing the scene, he finds a car with its trunk open, keys in the lock, and he shifts a stroller out of the way to close the trunk. Nearly all his conversation concerns existence, the “wet pink factory” that is the human body — “but what’s the product?” When he’s ultimately beat up for no reason other than being on the street, he looks as bruised as a newborn. In one of the strangest scenes, he appears to mistake Sebastian for his father, even saying “I’m still wet.”
Vera’s tendernesses create a world, her affection expansive and inclusive, accepting of much that others judge — the married client, for example, who finds herself pregnant though her husband has been in Korea for many months. Johnny craves affection, but to get it means losing the control he also craves, so he beats everyone to the punch, rejecting before anything can get started. Johnny, in his own life and those he invades, is abortive. The paradox of Vera is that in everything she undertakes, including providing abortions, she helps life along.
Together Naked and Vera Drake are two highly personalized snapshots of Britain in the late 20th century. The indignities and deprivations of the class system in Vera Drake‘s post-war period have mutated beyond recognition in Naked‘s post-Thatcher era. Even the consolations of useful work and a bearable place to live have eroded. In Vera and Johnny, Leigh, Imelda Staunton, and David Thewlis present characters whose motivations and actions are like two sides of the same desperate coin.