By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Like Ken Loach and Stephen Frears, Leigh got his on-the-job training during the heyday of socially engaged television in the 1970s, and he has never really abandoned his roots, doggedly pursuing his life’s calling of making kitchen-sink dramas tucked into political tracts of varying subtlety. When they work, they work beautifully. Life Is Sweet is one of his most appealing movies, and I don’t think it’s insignificant that — apart from Topsy-Turvy, a joyful homage to his beloved Gilbert and Sullivan — it’s as close as he’s ever gotten to making a movie without an explicit social message. But Leigh, as Pauline Kael tartly pointed out in an otherwise favorable review of High Hopes, is a really good hater. He can rarely resist dividing the world into upper-class villains and working-class heroes — his movies are kitchen-sink Westerns. Predictably, Vera Drake comes equipped with Mrs. Wells (Leslie Manville), another in Leigh’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of brittle upper-crust women who treat their own children, never mind the help, with icy aloofness. In a drive-it-home subtext about the social inequality of health provision, Mr. Wells’ put-upon daughter, too, becomes pregnant, and is swept off to a pricey private clinic for a termination. The lower-middle classes fare even worse — if there’s anyone Leigh disapproves of more than the rich, it’s proletarians who try to rise above their own class. Stan’s sister-in-law Joyce (Heather Craney) is an ill-tempered airhead obsessed with new household appliances and appearances, who will have nothing to do with Vera once she’s in trouble. Inevitably, it falls to the go-ahead Sid to be the reflexive pro-life mouthpiece.
The flip side of this hostility, of course, is Leigh’s tendency, like so many middle-class radicals of his generation, to condescend to the working classes by over-idealizing them as salt of the earth. Vera Drake’s script, written as always by Leigh, is bafflingly lacking in the vernacular Cockney wit and cadences that gave Life Is Sweet its special sparkle. The Drakes are a dull lot who communicate in mumbled half-sentences: “Awrigh’?” “Cup o’ tea?” and so forth. Ethel, an almost sadistically drawn frump, and her suitor, Reg, verge on the moronic, while Stan is mild-mannered and uncomprehending to the point of genuine stupidity. As to Vera, it’s not hard to imagine her doing what she did for free. Like my grandmother, she’s doing what her class and her nature prescribed — taking care of her fellows. Still, I’m willing to bet that had my grandmother been asked to abort a baby under such risky conditions, she’d have said, “Have the baby, I’ll find a home for it.” What strains credibility is that a woman of Vera’s intelligence and compassion would be unaware that using non-sterilized instruments is dangerous, or that the unscrupulous Lily was cashing in on her kindness. In truth, the working classes breed their own parasites like anyone else. The real tragedy of criminalizing abortion was not that it created inadvertent, improbable public-health hazards like Vera, but that it allowed the Lilys of this world to crawl out of the woodwork.
Leigh’s continuing rage against the machine is inspiring at a time when so many young directors are making clever, empty thrillers or disappearing into their own narcissistic heads. But as a character study Vera Drake is coarsely drawn, and as pro-choice polemic, it’s both a blunt instrument and a red herring. Which may be why, among all the moviegoers who staggered from the theater wielding soaked tissues, I was among the few who remained dry of eye, and raised of brow.
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!