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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