“We know what we are, but not what we may be
“Tonight, or maybe tomorrow, you’ll feel a pain down there,” the title character of Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake informs a young woman holding a towel between her legs. “Then it’ll all come away, dear, and you’ll be right as rain.” Vera (Imelda Staunton), a kindly and petite middle-aged wife and mother, has just pumped a toxic solution into the woman’s womb with a syringe. Her ministrations are practiced, gentle, even tidy; she has been helping girls in trouble for longer than she can recall. But this is a Mike Leigh film, and so we know immediately that we’ve entered a world where nothing “comes away” easily, unless it’s the fragile order people have tried to make of their lives.
Vera hums pleasantly as she passes through the brownish light of London’s postwar working-class lanes and alleys on her secretive visits to women who want to get out of the family way. But while abortion is as controversial today as it was categorically criminal in 1950, the film’s quiet power arises from its refusal to limit its scope to the particular moral or legal problems surrounding abortion. Rather, it is the ways in which we try to sort out the unforeseen and unintended consequences of choices we’ve made, according to needs and desires we do not fully understand, that Vera Drake is concerned to consider.
Vera moves easily between the wealthy houses where she works as a domestic, the lonely flats of desperate women, and the cozy, respectable flat she shares with her husband (Philip Davis) and two grown children. If her actions, when revealed, shock her family and friends, we cannot say we’ve seen two sides of Vera Drake. In each circumstance, whether polishing a well-appointed drawing room, arranging her daughter’s romantic happiness, or taking another “appointment” from a hard-bitten procurer (Ruth Sheen) while sipping tea, it is always the same softly rounded face and ingenuous smile that the camera lingers on. Boiling water, too, makes a repeated appearance throughout the film, but it gathers different associations in new contexts. Vera is forever recommending a “cuppa” for each grief she runs up against, large or small, but she also puts the kettle on to make the solution to bring about miscarriages. The audience picks up on these permutations from scene to scene, but they’re easily forgotten, absorbed in the rhythm of Vera’s everyday life. More striking is the juxtaposition of two scenes. Vera has just left a particularly abject young black woman (referred to as a “darkie” in the insular, 1950s parlance of the movie), and for the first time a brief and pained doubt twitches across her face before she advises a “nice, hot cup of tea.” The film cuts immediately to Vera and her husband in a cinema, laughing at a comedy. Again, though, this contrast — so often and so easily arranged by heavy-handed movies seeking to orient the audience’s moral compass — does not make us suddenly doubt Vera’s good nature and intentions. It is shocking less for what it reveals than for trying to make us own up to what we already know: that the suffering Vera has just witnessed does not square with the daily distractions we hope will deliver us from pain for good. When almost the same juxtaposition occurs again, it makes little or no impact. Like Vera, we’ve become habituated to her way of doing things, and it is not until something goes unexpectedly wrong that she or we question her actions.
The film doesn’t judge Vera (although in its sympathetic portrayal of abortion its politics are fairly clear) and neither will most audiences, politics aside. When Vera must answer to the law, she breaks down in an unbearably moving and unbearably long fit of tongue-tied grief. At first she is horrified that she has done someone harm rather than the good she intended, but laid over this is fear and shame. In a review in the New Yorker, David Denby suggests Vera’s inability to justify her actions stems from the era’s chokehold on working-class morality: she is unable to champion her political position. But the illegality of Vera’s services, a matter of historical bad luck (she is accused 17 years before abortion was legalized in Britain), is ultimately less compelling than her inability to answer to herself. She repeatedly says she just wants to “help out” girls in trouble who have no one else to turn to, and we believe her. What is less clear is why she has chosen this particular form of help, one which she has concealed not only from the law but from the people who love her most.
Leigh has delivered his familiar spectrum of characters in Vera Drake, but they are arrayed more closely together. In his early, unsparing films, Leigh flayed upper-class brutality and bourgeois complacency; he has almost always portrayed working-class people in more human terms, which means they too have their flaws, including, often enough, brutality and complacency. In Vera Drake, the upper-class characters, one of whom seeks an abortion in a clinic, are too remote to incur our wrath; Vera’s shallow, status-aspiring sister-in-law is also not permitted to cast too toxic a pall over the main characters. Polarity is minimized here, and so the common character of Vera’s predicament and the ambiguity of her response to it are emphasized. Although issues of class difference still lurk behind the action, Vera is not a victim of class disparity or of anyone’s particular malevolence.
When Vera is taken in for questioning, the arresting officer (Peter Wight), sympathetic to Vera but stringent in his duties, suggests she may have once been in the situation of the pregnant girls herself. Vera tries to speak but succumbs to convulsive sobbing. At a question-and-answer session at the New York Film Festival on October 8, an audience member asked Leigh and his panel “what Vera was thinking” when the police officer questions her and when she stands in a pained stupor during her court proceedings. Leigh asked what the audience member imagined Vera was thinking and feeling, and after hearing the reply, said affably, “Well, there you are. Now don’t ask any more unnecessary questions.” Leigh’s point here as an artist and a director is indisputable, but in real life, and in Vera’s case, something particular compels and constrains her which she cannot name and probably cannot know. The power of the film resides in this ineffability. As with a Lars vonTrier character or the title character in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, the source of Vera’s actions lies outside the film, but it is not mythic, single-minded, unnatural. Her reasons are life-size, even admirable, and nevertheless they evade her.
Something of this inability to face anything squarely is evident when, after Vera’s future son-in-law describes his mother’s death during the Blitzkrieg, everyone in the room is silent — until the offer of a cup of tea changes the subject. Likewise, Vera is vague when her patients want to know what will happen to their bodies: a miscarriage is euphemized as “everything coming away.” Following Denby’s point, Vera may very well be unable to articulate her resistance to the law, but there is too little evidence of a political or indeed any systematic reasoning behind her actions to pitch the film in exclusively political terms. Perhaps the most poignant and unsettling moments in the film are when Vera is asked to produce the tools of her trade as evidence. She first takes out a cloth bag from the recesses of a closet, then lays it on her bed, frightened and embarrassed. Later, when the bag’s contents are laid out as numbered exhibits at her trial, she looks at them with horror, not because they did evil — she is heroically steadfast to the end in insisting she only wished to help — but because in their sudden exposure they are unfamiliar. Vera Drake seems to suggest, as Shakespeare wrote, we know what we are, but not what we may be.