DVD Review Of Vera Drake
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/26/06
Vera Drake was a highly praised 2004 film, written and directed by Mike Leigh, that detailed the cruelties and hypocrisies of England’s anti-abortion laws back in post-World War Two 1950. It won the Best Film Award at the Venice Film Festival and from the British Independent Film Awards, and deservedly so. Yet, despite its ‘large’ backdrop, the film is one of the most intimate character studies ever put to celluloid. Drake (Imelda Staunton) is an aging London housewife, with a husband, Stan (Phil Davis), and two grown children, Ethel and Sid (Alex Kelly and Daniel Mays), who goes out of her way to help girls who are pregnant have homemade abortions. She charges no money for her services, and is sent on the sly, by acquaintances who do charge money to be recommended to her, although Drake does not know this. She is a prim lady who calls and holds everyone and everything ‘dear’.
The first half of the film shows her going about her life, as household domestic, mother, wife, and abortionist. She uses no instruments, merely a homemade solution of water and carbolic soap, and a cheese grater to shred the soap, to induce a miscarriage. Her ‘equipment’ fits all in a small bag. Her family is blithely unaware of Drake’s secret life. Then, a girl has a bad reaction to the treatment, is hospitalized, and the girl’s mother is bullied by the uncaring bureaucracy into naming Drake as the abortionist. The police enter Drake’s home during a party, and arrest her. The scenes of Drake’s breaking down, shame, and confusion over things, is a classic bit of great acting- the kind that flat out dwarfs the trite posing by that year’s Oscar winning best Actress, Hilary Swank, in Million Dollar Baby. The rest of the film’s just over two hours is devoted to the grilling, prosecution, and imprisonment of Drake for two and a half years for violating the Offenses Against the Person Act, 1861. The final shots of Drake wandering around the women’s prison is shattering in its simplicity.
But, what the film does not overtly tell us is where it succeeds. This film is one of those that is antithetical to the notion of pure cinema. The word, written, is supreme here. We see that the Drakes are poor, and during the interrogation we learn that Drake was likely raped as a teenager (which echoes an earlier scene of one of Drake’s girls being raped, then harshly treated by the ‘official’ system that deals with such things), herself, sought help from a similar person, and decided to help other girls who ended up like her. This is why the film does not devolve, as it easily could have, into a movie of the week formula plot about abortion rights. The crime that Drake is tried on could as easily have been for assisting in suicide, or being falsely accused of physical or sexual abuse. Staunton shines through as a character who feels shame, yet knows that what she did was right, even if illegal, and is flailing away on the ends of this dilemma.
The film does have some flaws, such as when Sid cannot bear his mother’s horrible ‘crime’, but the film is so focused on the lead character that this is but a minor distraction. We get the full panoply of Vera Drake’s life, which only makes her abortion work that less intriguing. What she does is a natural outgrowth of the character presented. The hypocrisy of the British class system also comes under scrutiny, for the rich can obtain medical waivers to get abortion if they have the right connections and enough cash- a hundred pounds. This is not the world Drake travels in, though. That Drake served a need that the state abdicated is the real criminal offense, of course, for women who do not want to be pregnant will get rid of their fetuses one way or the other, so denying them adequate healthcare only means that someone like Drake will eventually bear the brunt when something goes wrong, despite all precautions.
This film holds some truck with Alfred Hitchcock’s films that focused on wrongly accused men, most notably his The Wrong Man, with Henry Fonda, but this film ends on a lighter touch. Life goes on, and, in a few years, Vera Drake will be free, yet there will have been far less scrupulous characters who will have taken her place. Laws against abortion ALWAYS target the poor, not the rich, and then society condemns the poor for having ‘too many kids’, even as it denies them the means to not have those despised ‘bastards’.
The DVD has no features, save for the trailer, and that’s a shame. It should have at least had a commentary track by Leigh and Staunton, for hearing them discuss the conception of the character, as well as the ideas on how to make the film go in a certain direction, would have been well worth listening to, since, in many respects, this film is almost a Chekhovian chamber drama, and not really a filmic film.
Unfortunately, I knew Vera Drakes, as a child, when abortion was still illegal in America. I hope I never have to know any more Vera Drakes. This film is not structured as a cautionary tale, which is why it succeeds as a film, but in this day and age it cannot be anything less than a cautionary tale. Here’s hoping that, in the not too distant future, it will be able to be seen only as the great character study it truly is.
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