Vera Drake, a film by Mike Leigh, is not easy to write about for several reasons. But let this not diminish the fact that Vera Drake is an outstanding example of cinema-craft.
It is London in the early 1950’s. Vera (Imelda Staunton) is a working class wife who lives with her husband, George (Richard Graham), and two grown children. Vera goes about working and helping her house-bound mother and others; she is terminally cheerful, busy and kindly, without a hint of selfishness. George is a car mechanic who works for his brother. Their son is a tailor and the daughter also works outside their dark, but clean, tiny post-war flat. They seem a contented family and George and Vera are devoted to each other in a restrained, civilized kind of way.
Vera has a childhood friend, Lily (Ruth Sheen) who meets with her regularly at a café and tells her about girls and women who need help. At the arranged times, Vera visits these women and gives them a treatment that induces an abortion. She never checks up on them because she is so sure of her method. Lily, however, takes money for the abortions but Vera does not know this. She quietly helps these girls because they are in trouble, not for money.
Meanwhile, a girl named Susan (Sally Hawkins), the daughter of a wealthy family where Vera works as a house cleaner, is raped. Susan goes to a friend who puts her in touch with a doctor. He refers her to a psychiatrist who attests to her fragile psychological state. The doctor then, for a substantial fee, procures an abortion for Susan in a sanitary clinic.
The movie is very atmospheric, and London seems like a depressing place to live, the only oasis is the close-knit family.
Keys figure strongly in the film, as do doors and stairways. Intriguing symbolism; Vera is always opening and closing doors.
Just before Christmas Lily arranges for Vera to help another young girl. The girl’s mother recognizes Vera; they worked together before the war. The girl becomes very ill the next day and ends up in the hospital. The attempted abortion is reported to the police and Vera is arrested during Christmas dinner. Her family had no idea about Vera's "helping young girls in trouble." The lead detective asks Vera if she herself had had an abortion. Though the response is not clear because of Vera’s extreme state of distress, it would seem so. We also find out that Vera never knew who her father was.
Vera is sentenced in an all-male court (except for the female police officers who treat her kindly) to 2 ½ years for carrying out a medical procedure without a license, a law from 1861.
She meets two other women like herself in prison; they are already serving a second term.
I really had to think a lot about this film. It disturbed me, of course, because I believe in life from conception to natural death. To even think of taking the life of anyone, especially a child, goes against everything in me.
After the film I visited the ladies’ room and three other women came in, as well, all older than me. We started talking about the film and they had such insight: the rich could have legal abortions and the doctors who can finagle their way around the laws, get away with it; the woman, who assisted the poor, was put in jail; the only young woman who seemed to agonize over the abortion was from Africa.
It seemed to me, however, that the film is not about Vera performing abortions, nor is it in favor of abortion. The film seemed to be saying to me that there is a huge social context to be considered if we are to support pregnant women and to prevent abortion of any kind: families and society have to provide viable alternatives for women. For example, from my perspective as a human being and as a Catholic, natural family planning must be taught from the time adolescents can understand the concept; social programs must be in place to support women who are raped or who become pregnant without means and support; our culture’s attitude must change, through education and Christian practice, toward women who become pregnant outside of marriage, and so on and so forth. The dignity of the human person, endowed with freedom and responsibility, is the first principle of divine and social justice. From this dignity all else flows.
Respect and love for life begins in homes that understand and live life as a value and that is tolerant and accepting of all human beings, without distinction.
This is not a film about the need for a pro-abortion or an anti-abortion law. Rather it is a key to help us unlock our hearts. It is about the need to be truly human and Christian (as the Second Vatican Council teaches in the document Gaudium et spes, these words mean the same thing) in our culture, attitudes, social programs, etc. so that abortion is not the only alternative a woman thinks she has to survive in this world. A law will not stop abortion, but generous human kindness and the living the Beatitudes will. Some will say we need both – and this is the subject of the kind of conversation that needs to take place among people who care for human beings wherever we are, or whomever we are.
Vera Drake is a movie, hopefully, that will launch a million conversations.