Mike Leigh’s most recent effort, Vera Drake, is probably best known as “that movie about an abortionist.” It is that, I suppose, though it strikes me as something much more subtle, complex, and interesting. The film has been criticized on both sides of the debate, either for being another in a long line of liberal propaganda pieces, or as a missed opportunity for a pro-choice director to get the message out in a strong and effective manner. Rather, Vera Drake presents for us a study in human nature, depicting what human beings might do or how human beings might be, in and around a contentious situation like abortion. It brings humanity to the issue, a much-needed respite for those of us tired of the incessant back and forth.Briefly, the film’s first half follows its title character through the ins and outs of her daily life. As is more than once noted by her observers in the film, “Vera has a heart of gold.” In addition to her job cleaning houses for the rich, Vera, whose family is poor, makes a point to check in on an infirm neighbor every day, while his wife is at work. She also takes care of her ailing (and unappreciative) mother, serves her family with joy, and invites a lonely young man from the neighborhood to dinner. Yet alongside all these simple tasks, Vera also, in her words, “helps girls out.” The film’s second half relates the conflict that comes into the lives of Vera and her family as a result of her clandestine activities.
Through all of it, Leigh keeps us focused on the characters, on their simple words and actions. This attention to characterization keeps the film from devolving into an “issue” movie, sermonizing about the evils or benefits of abortion [Contrast that with the recent critical darling Crash, which cannot step away from its issue long enough to get to know its characters]. Because of Leigh’s discipline on this front, it makes formulating a response to the politics of this film a difficult one. That is the biggest reason why it works though. This film cannot be boiled down to a “propaganda piece” or a “missed opportunity.” The issue itself resides in ambiguity within the actions, situations, and hearts of these people. I am reminded of a comment by the ethics professor in Decalogue VIII, as she guides her students to think about an ethical situation in terms of characters and motivations: “What makes it interesting is that we both know prototypes. I think, however, that they are not people we know.” In other words, we need to know people more than issues. This, I think, is where Leigh takes us.
Vera Drake then, is primarily about its characters, and as such, invites us to empathize with their plight, whether they might be responsible for the conflict in their lives (Vera and the girls in need of abortions) or not (Vera’s family). In the case of Vera and the girls she helps, the issue of responsibility is complex. What role does society play, both in the way the justice system works as well as in the double standard that exists for the rich and poor? What about those girls like Susan, raped and forced into such a difficult situation?
These are difficult questions. However, in focusing on the people, Leigh allows us space to consider the questions. He keeps them in tension. How would we answer them in the face of real human beings suffering through such an experience? Everyone here suffers – from the girls getting abortions, to Vera, to her family. Leigh allows the questions to simmer under the surface, refusing to offer easy answers for us. This invites the viewer to engage the film, to engage its characters, and then finally, to engage the issue. But note – the issue cannot be addressed until the people have been sufficiently seen and heard. And it seems to me, because of Leigh’s balanced portrayal, the judgment about the issue is ours to make. Just because the film lacks an explicit pro-choice statement doesn’t mean it favors a particular side of the debate. Likewise, just because the film empathizes with its central character and her plight doesn’t leave the film in the pro-choice camp.
Leigh is too smart for all that. He offers a chilling portrayal of several abortions, with women scared, crying, and distraught. One falls ill. Vera even seems to have brief moments of consideration about what she’s doing. On the flip side, Leigh offers empathy for Vera (and her family), something it seems any of us should be willing to offer any person in need. This refusal to pass judgment on his characters, as well as empathy for everyone, is part of what makes Leigh’s film (and his work in general) so stimulating.