Vera Drake

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.

veradrake.jpgI’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…]

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