RogerBW's Blog

Vera Drake 18 September 2022

2004 drama, dir. Mike Leigh, Imelda Staunton: IMDb / allmovie. Vera is nice and helpful to everyone, and that includes helping out girls in trouble.

And the bit of this film that works really well for me, I think the point of the film, is not that she's procuring abortions but the way in which her family and friends react when the secret gets out and she's arrested. Really, it could be almost any secret that's socially unacceptable, in almost any era.

Leigh famously uses a semi-improvised filming style, and in this case only Staunton knew the subject of the film in advance. (Which seems a bit ethically dodgy, but still.) There's genuine shock, and revulsion, but at the same time she's still this person we know and like; there are some truly excellent performances here.

Unfortunately that's only half or less of this 2+-hour film. Vera's abortion work is – not glamorised, the whole film is relentlessly un-glamorous, even by the standards of 1950s Brown – but sanitised. It all seems very quick and easy and friendly, with no sign of the pain that was reported (by the few women who talked about it at all) or the ferocious adherence to sterile procedure needed to prevent sepsis. (Or perhaps they have all been dying; it's not as though Vera ever makes a follow-up visit.) Because the story needs her to be perfectly good to make its point, she is, unrealistically so; to the point of never asking for money (her black-marketeer contact does that and doesn't tell her).

And it's the same in the side story with Sarah, who's meant to be of some slightly higher class – she has not done anything wrong, she went out with a chap whom her family approved of and he raped her. It's all carefully set up so that she can't be accused of being a Bad Girl, because Leigh doesn't want to deal in moral grey areas: as far as the film is concerned, abortion on demand is a Good Thing.

That I happen to agree with this doesn't help the polemic to go down any more easily.

If you want more of my witterings, you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

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