In Vera Drake, Mike Leigh plays the propagandist, offering us a defense of legal abortion by trotting out again the idea of the saintly abortionist pioneered by John Irving in The Cider House Rules. But he does so with incomparably superior results. In one way, of course, his is an exercise in Spielbergian moralism. That is to say that, at least in the world of the movies, defending legal abortion is as much an exercise in flogging a dead horse as attacking the evils of slavery (Amistad) or Naziism (Schindler’s List). Instead of challenging its moral assumptions, in other words, such movies flatter the audience’s sense of its own goodness and superiority for not being slave-owners or Nazis themselves. But unlike Spielberg, Leigh doesn’t rely on simply assuming the evil of the things he opposes. Quite the reverse. So complete and so persuasive is the portrait he paints of working class north London in 1950, when hardly anyone would have supported making abortion legal, that he undermines his own point. Everything about the film apart from the propaganda is done so well that the propaganda, when it comes, strikes a jarring note and sounds out of place.
For it is not just the secret world of the abortionist that Leigh wants us to see. He takes a great deal of trouble to show us a whole society with something to hide. Fans of his Topsy-Turvy (1999), on the collaboration of W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, will remember that he did the same thing with the Victorian era. In 1950 too, the whole world — from the tightly belted trenchcoats worn by all the men to their stiff hair held down seemingly by glue in the neatly combed “wave” so popular in the period — seems geared to bolting the lid down on some very significant parts of life and keeping them well out of sight. Here everyone has a secret, from Sid (Daniel Mays), the black-marketeering son of Vera (Imelda Staunton) and Stanley Drake (Phil Davis) to Susan (Sally Hawkins), the upper-class girl who, date-raped and impregnated, seeks the imprimatur of the medical profession on her “operation” and to keep it hidden from her parents. For this she has to pay fifty times what the working class girls of the back alleys of north London have to pay for Vera’s services.Vera herself doesn’t charge. It is her friend Lily (Ruth Sheen) who puts her in touch with the girls “in trouble” and pockets the two guineas (£2.10 in the decimal currency) she charges them without Vera’s knowledge. She performs abortions for free, in the same spirit she shows by looking after her aged mother and visiting neighbors in need of assistance. Her kindliness is symbolized by her frequent offering of cups of tea. Significantly, she introduces herself into the households of the women she operates on by saying: “First thing we do is put the kettle on” — abortion as just another warming draft against the English winter.
What Leigh really minds is not so much the illegality of abortion as it is these secrets, this hidden away world that the gloomy, rationed, buttoned up, “repressed” society of post-war Britain still believed as devoutly as its Victorian ancestors had to be kept out of sight. Throughout the film, for example, hardly anyone can bear to say the word “abortion.” Even the women who have one, even the judge and the police try to avoid it. When Vera is arrested she begs the police inspector (Peter Wight) not to tell her family, and one of the film’s most moving scenes comes when they have to be told and the inspector allows Vera to do it herself. But she cannot speak the word out loud and has to whisper it in Stan’s ear. Leigh has a fine eye for such small touches — like the need to keep internal doors shut in the tiny, unheated, warren-like houses of the working class in order to conserve heat, a habit which he makes into yet another metaphor for the compartmentalized moral world they live in.
Yet the post-60s notion of being “up-tight” is very far from being adequate to describe these people’s lack of spontaneity and expressiveness. The more we see of their up-closed society the more we are inclined, I think, to respect it. Leigh obviously understands what a mistake it would be to have Stan, even in defending his beloved wife, suddenly turn into a spokesman for the permissive consensus of our own time. Miss Staunton gives a tremendous, Oscar-worthy performance in the title role, but equally good are Alex Kelly, who plays her daughter Ethyl, and Eddie Marsan as Ethyl’s suitor, Reg. Both are young people, still in their twenties, but seem at least as old as Stan and Vera. They have a stunned look, as if they have seen far too much of life — Reg, like Stan, is a veteran of the war and lost his mother in the blitz — and are now devoting all their energies to keeping their emotions tightly in check. My favorite moment in the film comes as taciturn Reg stands up at the gloomy family feast just before Vera’s trial and says: “This is the best Christmas I have had in a long time. Thanks, Vera; smashing.” The beauty of his remark is that we are impressed not only by its unexpected kindness and tact but also by the fact that it is probably true!
The propagandist in Leigh may want us to dismiss as worthless the culture keeping Vera and Stan and Ethyl and Reg the desperately repressed people they are, but the film-maker in him has done too good a job of drawing their characters — which, after all, are inescapably the product of their society — for us to be able to think of them and to love them as other than they are. All except the toffs, of course. As so often with Mr. Leigh, there seems scarcely a moment’s worth of sympathy for the upper classes. Poor Susan gets in trouble when she is raped by a Hooray Henry and then must negotiate the carefully constructed hypocrisies of the establishment — seeing a doctor, then a psychiatrist, then going to a special clinic — without telling her parents because they, unlike the parents of the working class girls Vera attends to, refuse to step outside their illusory official culture to live in the world as it really is.
The one place where the working class falls into line with that culture is in the case of the woman with too many children who secretly has an abortion, hiding the fact from her husband and family because she is afraid she can’t take care of one more child. Such secrets are excusable, apparently. But the savage irony is unforgettable in having upper-class Susan meet her only female confidante (Fenella Woolgar) for advice about getting a secret abortion in a fashionable restaurant where a small ensemble is playing the heart-breakingly beautiful “Salut d’Amour” by Sir Edward Elgar, the great establishment composer of the patriotic anthem “Land of Hope and Glory” (known on this side of the Atlantic to generations of high school graduates as the “Pomp and Circumstance March Number One).
Another bit of brilliance that goes just a bit too far for the propagandist is the film’s portrait of Stan’s brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough) and his younger wife Joyce (Heather Craney) who has the misfortune to belong to the class of people that Mike Leigh hates even more than the toffs, and that is the middle class people who strive to rise in society, either by imitating the toffs or by making a vulgar display of their relative wealth, so as to distinguish themselves from their working class connections. Frank is a good-hearted guy. He owns the garage and auto repair center where Stanley, the older but poorer of the two brothers, is an employee. But Frank is dominated by the attractive and ruthless Joyce, a woman who always wants to be moving to a bigger and better house and to have new things. When, after apparently much trying, she gets pregnant and informs the joyful Frank of the fact, she quickly goes on to ask: “Can I have my washing machine now, please?”
The only person in the film, toff or ordinary, who attempts any real defense of the legal and moral status quo — as opposed, that is, to simply accepting it — is poor Sid, the young tailor who offers women’s nylons in exchange for cigarettes to his mates who are courting. Never having questioned the uses to which those nylons are presumably being put when these young men would a-wooing go, Sid nevertheless confidently blames his mother: “It’s wrong, isn’t it?” he says tearfully to his father. “It’s little babies. . .It’s dirty.”
Stan doesn’t answer directly. Instead he says: “You can forgive her, Sid. She’s your mum. She’d forgive you anything, wouldn’t she?” Later he remarks: “Everything’s black and white for Sid. He’s young.”
I think what he does not mean by this is that the taking of innocent life in the womb is a moral “grey area,” let alone that he approves of it. Like everyone else in this time and place, as for centuries previous to it, Stan would naturally assume that abortion is, as Sid describes it, wrong and dirty. He tells Sid he would have put a stop to it if Vera had told him what she was doing. Even Vera is ashamed of what she does and still more ashamed at the idea that her family must know about it. But this world of repression and disguise that both fascinates and appalls Mike Leigh also leaves room for compassion for those who do wrong — which may be the wiser course than trying to make wrong right, as we have done since their time.