The Choice Is Hers And His

'Vera Drake' finds Mike Leigh collaborating with his protagonist on abortion rights

When Vera Drake won the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion this summer, director Mike Leigh thanked the Cannes folks for rejecting his film, thus allowing him to enter at Venice. Which just goes to show that the festival circuit is a topsy-turvy thing, since the Leigh movie that Vera Drake most resembles is Secrets & Lies--the Cannes winner in 1996.

Neither as electrifyingly ugly as Leigh's Naked or as deliriously contrived as his Topsy-Turvy, the director's latest starts off like a liberal's moralistic hypothetical: argument-as-story bulletproofed to make the "small-minded" look small-minded. In Secrets & Lies, an educated, well-spoken black professional searches for her birthmother and finds a working-class white woman with some rather appalled family connections. With Vera Drake, Leigh asks: What if a true-blue family-glue salt-of-the- earth 1950s wife and mother was a criminal abortionist? These polarized setups can feel like talk-show static. A stereotype stood on its head still quacks like a stereotype.

And the opposite of a propagandistic image too often reads as propaganda. Imelda Staunton's generous Vera appears fashioned to deflect the usual anti-choice scarecrow descriptions of "abortionist" and "pro-choicer." This paragon of humanity doesn't take money (no exploiter of women, she). Her methods have proven safe for more than two decades (i.e., neither is she a woman killer). She and her white-haired husband George (Richard Graham) still relish cradling each other at night; she also supports and cooks for two grown children (no promiscuous, child-hating single, this one). She tenderly cares for her bedridden mother (euthanasia not being next on her agenda). She takes in orphans. She makes no judgments about those whose paths don't run alongside hers. She otherwise follows all of England's laws and customs with inspiring cheer. How could you damn < I>her?

Her life to give (and take): Imelda Staunton in 'Vera Drake'
Fine Line Features
Her life to give (and take): Imelda Staunton in 'Vera Drake'

Perhaps to reflect a more diverse reality, Leigh litters Vera's surroundings with less admirable people. Lily (Ruth Sheen), the woman who arranges the abortions, smokes, spouts racist blather, and demands cash up front from the patients without Vera's knowledge. The young women Vera helps include an adulteress and a cocktail- slugging party girl. Vera's sister-in-law Nellie (Annie Keaveney) is a self-righteous, social- climbing backstabber. Unfortunately, the effect of all this humanity is to throw Vera into even higher relief: She glows still brighter and is consequently so much more "undeserving" of the tragic downfall telegraphed from Scene One. Would seemingly pro-choice Leigh then say that scheming Lily (or any fallible human) deserves punishment for participating in illegal abortion? I doubt it. But that's the corner he has painted himself into.

Secrets & Lies stuck around long enough for Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste to poke holes in their characters' schematic personas, and clearly Vera Drake does so just as well, if not as comprehensively. It wouldn't be a Mike Leigh movie if the acting wasn't as reliably flavorful as a fine Sunday supper. As Vera's timid daughter Ethel, Alex Kelly barely utters three words, but her open face conveys multitudes. Sheen undercuts Lily's brittle sheen by exposing the fear trapped in her eyes. Phil Davis, as a loner whom Vera invites home, keeps pulling rabbits out from behind a poker face.

Leigh's leads play maids and card players and officials in other directors' movies, their faces homely and distinctive. The magnificent Staunton grounds her saint in earthy details, in how Vera sing-hums through her quick tidy-ups, how her thick stockings roll around her stumpy ankles. Staunton's Vera looks at a desperate woman with great compassion and great briskness, as if saying, "I've done all I can-- you'll have to do the rest yourself." I wish she were my grandma. The truth is, my grandmothers were cowed by authority-- religious, marital, and legal. Which may be why, when Staunton crumbles Vera into a soggy lump, the character feels at once more real and almost intolerably irritating. (She's supposed to be stronger, right?) Eventually Staunton manages to bust Vera out of moist martyrdom, simply in the thoughtful bent of her shoulders in the penultimate shot.

The men are equally compelling, especially Graham as Vera's husband and Eddie Marsan as George's brother and employer Reg. In a movie where women act and men respond, George and Reg shift between bewilderment, ferocity, and a gentleness that might be rooted in their having survived WWII. I suspect that, for Leigh, the hot center of the film isn't Vera, but the men surrounding Vera, from husband to magistrate, and how they react to and deal with her character and deeds. One source of their feeling seems to be primal revulsion-- not for the killing, I don't think (given the war background Leigh inserts), but for the idea of a "dirtiness" down there, of vaginal blood and mess that should properly be under the control of a white-gowned (and male) doctor--somewhere where they don't have to think about it.

Leigh emphasizes the rumpled and smudged liveliness of Vera's environs: the cobblestone streets she clumps across, the gnarled staircases she climbs, breathing hard, the close comfort of pots banging and teacups clinking. The playfully authentic dialogue and varying class accents endemic to Leigh's movies kick-start this postwar past into life. By comparison, the government spaces and legal language of the film's final third feel sterile and cold--and are very much male- administered. For a good while, it seems the movie's juxtaposition of Vera/life and punishment/death will remain static and, ultimately, not very interesting. But by the end, Leigh has argued the radical concept that Vera is at once life-bringer and -taker-- and that she failed as much as anyone to understand the whole picture. Leigh, master of endings, makes the second-to-last scene a can opener that lets the world into his stifling fable; and for that alone I would've welcomed Vera Drake into Cannes, though I'm still not certain it's worthy of (forgive the pun) lionization.

 
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