|Photo by Simon Mein|
MY MATERNAL GRANDMOTHER was a beloved figure in the working-class neighborhood of London’s East End, where she lived through the first half of the 20th century with her husband and five children, of whom my mother was the youngest. She died while I was a child living abroad, so I know her only through the spidery handwriting of a letter my mother recently gave me for safekeeping that described with vivid simplicity my grandfather’s death from bronchial pneumonia in one of the great London fogs of the 1940s, and through stories I never tired of hearing about her work as the ad hoc local midwife. Unlike the small-breasted, wide-hipped women in our family (on a bar-mitzvah receiving line, we looked like a row of Bartlett pears resting comfortably on their bases), my grandmother was large and bountifully bosomed. But though she cut an imposing figure, she was an unassuming woman who, by accepting no payment for the babies she cheerfully spanked into life, probably did more to normalize relations between the Jews and Catholics who cohabited uneasily around Castle Street than any government-appointed social worker could have done. We Jews don’t do saints, but if we did, my grandmother would come close.
Vera Drake, the eponymous heroine of Mike Leigh’s new movie, is nobody’s idea of an arresting physical presence. As played by Imelda Staunton, a powerful actress mutated into a mousy housewife, she’s someone you’d barely register if you passed her on the street. Up close, though, she’s very like my mother’s account of my grandmother — congenitally cheery, forever taking in last-minute strays for dinner, always ready with that most potent of English therapies, a nice cup of tea. Vera cleans rich women’s houses for a living, but she also has a secret sideline “helping young girls out,” as she puts it. Not to put too fine a point on it, Vera is a back-street abortionist — a pejorative term that, in this case at least, would make Leigh shudder — with only a tenuous grasp of medical hygiene. But because she does her work for free, and because she’s such a nice person, Leigh offers her to us as a misunderstood martyr and a casualty of the stringent laws banning abortion in England in 1950. He has persuaded most of the critics I respect, and though I’ve had my ups and downs with Leigh’s work over the years, I went to Vera Drake prepared for a good wallow in one of his finer weeporamas. I’m still trying to understand why I came out unpersuaded and unmoved by a movie as capably acted, gorgeously mounted and expertly directed as this one is.
Set in a down-at-heel borough of North London, Vera Drake beautifully captures the volatile post-war mood of scarcity, hope and ambition (everyone’s scraping by, and jobbing on the side) through the Drake family, whose cramped, threadbare but clean apartment is lit in rich shades of olive and brown, a drab home warmed by domestic happiness. Vera’s mellow husband, Stan (played by Phil Davis, who was the scruffy lead in Leigh’s wonderful 1988 film, High Hopes), works as a mechanic in the garage of his brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough). The Drakes have two grown children living at home, Ethel (Alex Kenny), a lumpish, painfully shy young woman who works in a light-bulb factory and is courted by an equally monosyllabic neighbor (the excellent Eddie Marsan), and Sid (Daniel Mays), a tailor’s assistant who, with his slicked hair and on-the-make verve, presents the sharp face of a new generation of enterprising workers on their way up from poverty. For all the months of research and improvisation that Leigh’s actors famously go through in building their characters, there’s something crudely neo-Dickensian about these people — one half expects Tiny Tim to hobble in, God-blessing everyone in sight. The Drakes hover around caricature, and none more so than Vera herself, who oozes an unalloyed goodness of soul that strains credibility and, eventually, patience. A gentle soul with a careworn face used up by service to others, Vera looks after her family and her elderly parents without complaint while “doing for” a fabulously wealthy matron.
And then there’s Vera’s other little job, terminating the pregnancies of exhausted Catholic mothers of seven, or those of naive girls knocked up in quickies with married men on a Saturday night. The compassionate Vera won’t accept a penny for her work, and, if you can believe it, she has no idea that Lily (High Hopes’ Ruth Sheen), the middleman who brokers her clients while moonlighting as a black marketeer of tea and chocolate, profits handsomely from the arrangement. Armed with a grater, a bar of soap and a rubber-hose syringe wrapped in a worn cloth, Vera makes house calls, delicately asking her clients to “go all floppy for me” as she begins the procedure. Her charitable sideline is a train wreck waiting to happen, and when one of her “young ladies” ends up in the hospital, it’s only a matter of time before the police come knocking on her door smack in the middle of a family celebration.
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.
VERA DRAKE | Written and directed by MIKE LEIGH | Produced by SIMON CHANNING WILLIAMS and ALAIN SARDE | Released by Fine Line Features | At selected theaters