The way we were



Staunton gives a moving performance as the 1950s English abortionist Vera Drake, who was arrested and prosecuted for "helping young girls out."

How 'trouble' was handled before abortion was legal

By the time you read this, Oklahomans will have decided whether to send Republican Tom Coburn, who advocates capital punishment for abortionists, to the United States Senate. A screening of Dead Man Walking might have caused Coburn to rethink executions. Vera Drake might raise some doubts about the iniquity of abortionists. Though it is set, meticulously, in 1950 England, the film speaks to current American anxieties over reproductive rights, in the working-class accents of extraordinarily ordinary characters.

When we first see Vera Drake, she is an angel of mercy, dispensing tea and cheer to bedridden neighbors. Running into a lonely, gawky bachelor, she invites him to share her family's modest dinner. Vera's husband is a salt-of-the-earth auto mechanic named Stan (Davis). Their mousy, grown-up daughter, Ethel (Kelly), works in a light-bulb factory. Ethel and her brother, Sid (Mays), a tailor, still live with their parents. Amid the privations of post-War Britain, it is a household devoid of luxury, except mutual affection. Stan, who has been married to Vera for 27 years, marvels at how lucky they are, a certain signal, even for a character lacking the stature of King Oedipus, that their luck has run out.

For longer than she can remember, Vera has been lending her assistance to women in trouble. She comes to the rescue armed with a kit containing carbonic soap, a cheese grater, disinfectant, and a syringe. Her patients - a careless adolescent, a wayward wife, a Caribbean immigrant, a mother who has already borne six children - are often queasy, even desperate, but Vera goes about her fateful work with steady self-assurance. "You'll be right as rain," she promises before moving on.

Vera Drake
Dir. & writ. Mike Leigh; feat. Imelda Staunton, Philip Davis, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Eddie Marsan, Adrian Scarborough (R)
No one but Lily Clark, who arranges her appointments, knows anything about Vera's secret career as a volunteer abortionist; and Vera is unaware that Lily, a snippy, racist mercenary, extorts fees for Vera's services. But when one of Vera's beneficiaries ends up right as acid rain, near death in a hospital bed, the police come calling on the Drakes. "I help young girls out," explains Vera, now in serious trouble from which no one can help her out. Even as they celebrate the pregnancy of Stan's sister-in-law, Joyce, the Drakes must each contend with the revelation that Vera has kept hundreds of babies from being born. "How could she be so selfish?" asks Joyce, whose middle-class pretensions make her long for a washing machine and scorn her homely, honest in-laws.

Leigh bleaches his cinematic palette, like a faded photograph from 50 years ago, almost into sepia. Though Stan's brother insists that Vera is "good as gold," Leigh prospects for goodness in bleak houses. Like the American movie Marty, his work eschews glamor and finds grace in the timorous and maladroit. In the upstairs/downstairs division of English society, Leigh's heart lies in the basement. Wealthy Susan Wells becomes pregnant from a date rape, but she enters the story not to elicit sympathy for her but to emphasize the plight of Vera's helpless women. Unlike Susan, they cannot afford to dispose of an unwanted fetus discreetly in a private sanatorium.

In the title character, Vera, Imelda Staunton has created an icon of instinctive, guileless generosity. The final section of the film, when she is questioned, arrested, tried, and sentenced, consists of excruciatingly long takes of weeping Vera in closeup that are as agonizing to the viewer as they seem to the defendant. The ending subverts the trajectory of hagiography that the film has prepared us for. Instead of blissful martyrdom or a dramatic Last Supper, we are left with an image of the Vera-less Drakes sitting at the dinner table in pained, befuddled silence. Vera Drake takes no overt position on whether abortion should be outlawed. It merely tells the story of one unreflective woman and her reflexive response to suffering.

At press time, all Vera Drake opening dates were moved to December.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.