As far as movies about abortion go, Vera Drake [Leigh, 2004] seems easier to understand in the context of British class issues than the contemporary abortion debate. I guess the whole movie is about context, really. So I’ll try to make my way through some of it past the jump. Spoilers ahead.
I’m going to compare Vera Drake to If These Walls Could Talk [Cher, Savoca, 1996], mainly because they are both about abortion and I’ve seen both of them. First off, If These Walls Could Talk is a made-for-TV movie starring Cher. Its audience is white American women. And it is from 1996. And it is a made-for-TV movie. Starring Cher. It is also quite graphic, violent and disturbing. Actually, a pretty good reflection of the state of the abortion debate in the mid-nineties.
Vera Drake, on the other hand, is all about subtlety and nuance [to belabor the word], and is a bit more accessible to a broader audience. It is still mainly an all white audience, but there is a West Indian girl in the film. I think the word ‘abortion’ is used three times in the movie, all by The Authorities and near the end. Most of the film is a character study of Vera, showing the viewer how nice and caring and selfless she is. We see her “help girls out” several times, and we get an alright cross-section of age and race and class. Legal abortion in Britain is an expensive process, something like 100 guineas; only the upper class, such as the raped daughter of one of Vera’s employers, can afford the price.
I’d like to come at the topic from the same angle that the movie does now. Keep in mind that much of what I’m going to describe isn’t said, so much as visually inferred. These folks are post-WWII British, civil, polite, still a bit shellshocked from the Blitz. Vera is a washerwoman who, out of the goodness of her heart and for no money, takes care of invalids and performs abortions in her spare time. Her husband is a mechanic, her son Sid works for/is a tailor and her daughter Ethel spends all day testing lightbulbs. We get different snapshots of love, from the stable marriage and family of the Drakes, to Sid chatting up girls at the dance hall, to shy Ethel being set with the neighbor Reg, to a proper young English gentleman raping a proper young English gentlewoman as soon as the parents take off. We see that the love of the lower classes appears to be a bit healthier, but the upper classes have no empathy at all. Even though you get the sense that the mother of the raped girl knows that she went to get an abortion, nothing is said about it—they both just had “weekends” out of town. There is no comfort. But wait, how’d we get from class back to abortion? Well, Vera helps girls out who can’t pay 100 guineas for a special nursing home, psychiatric evaulation and all that jazz. We really only get two specific reasons that women choose abortion in this movie, rape and money.
But there is very little comfort in Vera’s method as well; a bit of soapy water, a pump, and she’s out the door, leaving the single poor pregnant woman alone to kill the feelings inside of themselves. The hurried manner in which she flits in and out of their lives suggests that she is a bit afraid of the associated feelings, that she might have some doubt that what she does is right. This takes on a whole new aspect when we find out later, though it is never stated, that Vera herself had an abortion when she was young.
Something that ticks me off about both movies is that men are always the ones at fault from beginning to end. The tagline for If These Walls is “There’s one question only a woman can answer.” In Vera Drake, when Sid is trying to come to terms with learning what his mother has been doing his entire life, he is portrayed as being unfair, while Ethel and Vera share a knowing glance. Reg offers a bit of support for Vera, contrasting Sid’s anger, but, like the rest of the wisdom he speaks, it falls to the floor and wriggles a bit while everyone else just pretends it isn’t there. He is the yurodivy of the movie.
When one of Vera’s young girls almost dies, the mother of the daughter doesn’t want to reveal Vera’s identity to the male detective who was summoned by the male doctor. She says something along the lines of “I didn’t call you. He called you.” Look, I don’t care who you are, if you almost kill my kid, I’m reporting you to the authorities. The coldness and matter-of-fact procedures of the courtroom are channeled through males [albeit dressed in skirts and wigs] and eerily echoes the matter-of-fact procedures that Vera has been performing for the past twenty years. While it is true that men “can’t understand” in the sense we can’t have a baby or get an abortion, constantly being reminded of the fact doesn’t make me want to even try to understand. Especially when “you can’t understand” is coupled with “and it is your fault.” However, that whole sense is only a thin undercurrent throughout the movie, and we do, once, get a glimpse of an earnest young man who was obviously not consulted before the procedure.
So Vera is guilty. Her sentence of 30 months seems harsh and unforgiving, and the judge seems to be pandering to the reporters. We want mercy, not justice, but we don’t seem to get either. Vera, though, accepts her responsibility, knows that she was wilfully disobedient and takes the consequences like a man. We are assured that she will never “help young girls out” again.
In the epilogue, in prison, Vera meets a couple of other women who’ve been “helping girls out.” Both of them are locked up for the second time, and suddenly we aren’t so sure that Vera will never perform abortions again. The final message, moral, what have you, seems to be that as long as the problems exist that would drive a woman to rid herself of unwanted pregnancy but prevent her from doing so, women like Vera will be around.
The movie is very very good, the lighting is amazing, the only improvement in terms of subject matter would have been more varied examples, but that would have unnecessarily bogged down the story and probably made the movie unwatchable. As it stands, it is stately paced throughout. Rent it or snag it from the library. It is definitely better than watching Cher get shot a few times. [Although that has its own appeal…]