I Help Girls Out: Vera Drake (2004)

Abortion is a very touchy issue as most can confess, when it is considered in the context of film it is often met with much trouble or confrontation.  In some cases it exists as a narrative connection between splintering opposition that creates a problematically complex story, as occurs in Tony Kaye's pseudo-documentary Lake of Fire, or serves a possible choice in the background of a film centering on birth issues, evident in both Juno and Knocked Up.  When a film does consider the act head on it is often met with much opposition or attempted quieting on the part of censors or individuals who think their conservative ideals should rule supreme on a society.  Fortunately, for this blogger, who is decidedly and adamantly pro-choice the presence of a film like Vera Drake allows for a very real consideration on the issues of abortion and gender politics, while also proving extremely watchable and socially prescient.  Vera Drake is neither an exploitative mess, like many other abortion themed films seem so intent on doing, nor is it entirely idealistic about its presence, it is a film very much intent on simply portraying the facts of abortion in mid-20th century Britain, an act that was done not out of a push towards moral degradation, but as a means to provide an affordable option to women who were still ignored heavily within the medical system, particularly if they were of a lower class and without the economic means to navigate healthy medical procedures.  Furthermore, while the film makes it quite clear that the act of procuring an abortion is directly experienced by the woman receiving said procedure, Mike Leigh's film depicts a very real extension of social condemnation to any persons involved in such an act.  Cinematically shot, and magnificently acted, Vera Drake manages to take a very touchy subject and strip it down to its factual situations, noting the points where even the most stalwart of upholders of law realize the grey area of such, then illegal, procedures, and how dangerous the act can be even in the most practiced of hands.  Abortion, in the filmic narrative of Vera Drake, is not a denied occurrence, but a very real fact of the times, one that is brought to the forefront and demanded to be considered beyonds its violent misconceptions.

Vera Drake follows the title character, played masterfully by Imelda Staunton, an aged woman whose life as a domestic caretaker helps bring money to her family.  Along with her husband George (Richard Graham) the couple is looking after their son Sid (Daniel Mays) who also makes money by working as a tailor, as well as their daughter Ethel (Alex Kelley) whose mannerisms suggest a very mild mental disorder.  Regardless of the fact that three of the family members are employed, the family still appears to be in considerable poverty, only worsened by the fact that Vera must also take care of her ailing mother and father who are essentially bedridden.  Yet, despite all these woes, the family seems particularly close, with the exception of a rather condemning sister-in-law.  Things even begin to look up when a young man named Reg (Eddie Marsan) takes a liking to Ethel, eventually proposing to her much to the excitement of the entire Drake family.  Yet, while the entirety of this is going on, Vera has been procuring free abortions to women around the city, seeing it as a means to help them in their most needy moments.  She does so quite elusively and appears to be quite successful, until one of her patients is admitted to the hospital with rather serious stomach pains, resulting from an issue in the operation.  This occurrence leads a doctor to inquire as to where the woman received the illegal abortion, eventually leading to Vera.  A set of detectives interrupt the Drake's in the middle of celebrating their daughter's engagement and take Vera in on charges of willfully harming an individual. In this moment, Vera's alternate life emerges, received with much confusion by the family, particularly Sid who thinks she has betrayed the family, although Reg, who up until this point has been rather ignorant, reminds them that being able to afford to take care of a child plays heavily into being able to love them.  During trial, the initial detectives do their best to let Vera off with a fine and minimum sentence, realizing that her intention was by no means to harm anyone, yet when it reaches a higher court the judge shows no pause in extending a heavy sentence to her, thus placing her in jail on a two year incarceration.  The closing scene, with a sense of poetic tragedy shows the family sitting in the dining room at a loss for what to do without the presence of Vera.

I state that this film does a lot for the manner in which one considers abortion in a social context.  Firstly, the problematic issue of medical costs and class access arise when one girl is shown attempting to discretely go through the proper channels to get a legal abortion, only to be told that she does not possess enough money, causing her to seek alternative methods to end the pregnancy, one that the narrative suggests was a result of rape.  This still holds true for abortion in a contemporary context, many women who attempt to obtain same and legal procedures, are either turned away due to lack of medical insurance or as a result of providers refusing to provide services due to ethical grounds.  As such alternative means to end pregnancies are sought and low costs without the assurance of absolute safety.  Of course, in The United States organizations such as Planned Parenthood offer services for individuals in need, yet this is always predicated on funding from the community, as the government fails to properly finance the services, again resting almost solely on conservative politicians refusing to aid persons in need.  Furthermore, the film is also careful to note the diversity of women who receive abortions, whether it be relatively well to do women hoping to discreetly rid themselves of an unwanted pregnancy, or a worn out mother of seven whose male figurehead is adamant not to allow for contraceptive use, even considering women of color, which is particularly fascinating given their particular otherness in fifties Britain.  This too reflects a contemporary understanding of abortion, an issue which many people assume happens only to lower class women of color.  In fact, the persons who obtain abortion are quite diverse, although statistics do suggests it is particularly prevalent in the previously mentioned group, it does extend well beyond this group.  Finally, the film asks viewers to consider whose ethically at fault her, reminding them that if Vera did not need to do this she certainly would not, but she sees it as a means to help those who cannot afford medical care, as opposed to forcing them to carry to term a child that will in no way be taken care of with any degree of decency.  Vera Drake paints a very real picture of issues in abortion, masked cleverly in a seemingly dated period piece, not as a means of distancing the subject, but as a clever reflection on its still pertinent problems.

Key Scene:  The initial interrogation by the police at Vera's home may well be one of the greatest acted moments in contemporary film and the contemplative cinematography only adds to its effectiveness.

As it stands there is no bluray of this movie, which is a shame because it is gorgeous.  Fortunately, the DVD is super cheap and still looks great.  Vera Drake is a definite must-own, unless of course you are a conservative pro-lifer, but if that is the case you probably hate good film anyways.

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