Looking Back At VERA DRAKE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At VERA DRAKE

Tony’s on his soapbox.
In light of the recent decision in the US Supreme Court decision to overturn the universal applicability of Roe Vs Wade, leaving women’s rights to their own reproductive healthcare up to and including the termination of a pregnancy a conditional issue, depending on which state you’re in, watching Vera Drake in 2022 feels like indulging in a howl against everything wrong in the world.

Mike Leigh’s 2004 film about the life and work of a fictional back street abortionist in the early 1950s, is, like a lot of his work, delivered with a realism that means when you type the film’s name into Google, the first question you see is “Is Vera Drake based on a true story?”

It isn’t – and no less a writer than Jennifer Worth, the woman behind the Call The Midwife books and TV shows has publicly stated that the portrayal of what went on is fanciful, and does not begin to show the horror of genuine back street abortions at the time. She’s also expressed concern that the method used by Vera in the film was a lot more routinely fatal than the film allows – and that the film’s positive spin on the method could lead to it being used in countries where termination is illegal, on the film-based assumption that maternal deaths from the method are rare.

In all honesty, it’s probably worth listening to her – she was a midwife herself throughout the Fifties and Sixties, and countries where access to accurate information and termination procedures is limited are on the increase.

But there’s also a level on which the fact that Vera Drake (played by Imelda Staunton) is a fiction, and one aimed at making the work of the back street abortionist feel simply like women helping women in a tight spot, is almost irrelevant. It is a fiction, and it absolutely tries to eat its cake and have it too, by showing unscrupulous, profit-driven players taking money for illicit abortions provided to poor women, while keeping Vera Drake herself innocent of such mercantile concerns. It also counterpoints the Vera Drake experience by showing the hypocrisy at the heart of British moral outrage through the medium of a rich young woman’s experience in a proper healthcare facility, her abortion procured for a lot more money, but with a much higher chance of survival and success.

Vera Drake herself is played by Staunton as a relentlessly cheerful and optimistic woman, always looking for ways to help people, whether it’s by visiting the sick, caring for her bedridden mother, or taking a lonely and poor young man, Reg (the always superb Eddie Marsan) under the wing of her family’s protection and warmth, initially simply for the sake of being a good person, but ultimately with the aim of finding a husband for her ultra-shy daughter, Ethel (Alex Kelly).

She’s a woman forever in motion, working a number of cleaning jobs alongside caring for her family, her friends – the first handful of scenes show her endlessly traipsing up steps and down, going about the series of jobs or duties she either has to do or feels it incumbent on her to do. She feeds her family, works her cleaning jobs on her hands and knees, often with a song on her lips, and even walks around very noticeably with a smile on her face and a greeting for everyone.

She just also happens to be a travelling abortionist, providing her services free to any woman in her vicinity. She’s given addresses to go to by Lily, the woman who takes money for the terminations, (played with sharp-tongued certainty by Ruth Sheen), who also reduces her prices on hard-to-get items for Vera, but neither passes on the money she charges, nor gives any of her goods away for free. And then off goes Vera, with her makeshift termination kit of a syringe, a cheese grater, some antiseptic and some soap, happily helping women and girls who “can’t manage” after having been put “in the family way.”

Until one of the girls she helps falls seriously ill, requiring emergency medical treatment. And because the girl’s mother, Jessie (played by Lesley Sharp) used to work with Vera before the war and remembers her name, Vera’s world comes crashing quickly down, when involving doctors turns into involving the police.

As much as Vera Drake is about the activities of the happy-go-lucky abortionist, it’s also about her family, none of whom are aware of her ‘medical’ activities. The cast that fills out the Drake family is almost ridiculously good. Alongside Staunton in the lead role, Vera’s husband, Stan, is played by Phil Davies. His brother, Frank, is played by Adrian Scarborough (who in more recent years has moved into, and become famous for, rather more upper middle class roles). Vera’s son, Sid, is a startlingly young and effective Daniel Mays, who has more scenes than the film needs him to have – including a shot of him at work as a tailor, alongside Chris O’Dowd as a customer, and some dance hall scenes which add nothing to the overall plot. Still, you watch them eagerly because Mays’ performance is hypnotically realistic, and when Sid finds out what his mother has been doing, he is powerfully torn between loving her as his mother and despising her actions as “wrong.”

The rest of the cast list is peppered with stars, too, from Jim Broadbent as the judge who (spoiler alert) eventually sends Vera to prison for her actions, to Sally Hawkins as Susan, the young rich girl who gets the hush-hush but professional abortion after being raped by a suitor, to Fenella Woolgar as her friend who kickstarts the safe route to a termination for her, to Vinette Robinson as one of Vera’s more frightened ‘patients,’ and so on, and so on.

Of all the supporting actors, it would be churlish not to pay special tribute to Phil Davies, who pours every ounce of available naturalism into both the love of his wife and family and the subsumed anger at the things his wife has never found the words to tell him.

And it’s also beyond any argument that Imelda Staunton owns almost every scene of the film, both as the perennially cheerful Vera who goes about her many strains of business, and as the Vera who, when the truth is uncovered, goes into what feels like a crushing shock, her life as it was rushing away from her. It’s a devastation made of both her realisation that she was endangering her ‘patients,’ and the condemnation of society, reaching right into her own family.

It’s no secret that Mike Leigh’s way of working – largely getting his casts to improvise their way towards the core of their characters – regularly has some of the best actors in the business lining up to work with him, and Vera Drake is no exception to that. But the joy of that method is that while you recognise familiar faces and voices, by the time they get to your screen, they are so subsumed in the characters they’re playing that their fame slips by you, driven by the force of the drama.

The point of the film – or at least, the point we choose to see in the film – is best summed up by the words of the doctor who saves the life of Pamela Barnes (Liz White) after Vera visits her.

“These people have to be stopped.”

Because ultimately, Vera is a symptom of what happens when women are denied reproductive healthcare by the state. Yes, as Jennifer Worth says, her methods are dangerous and her knowledge insufficient to the task in which she happily engages. She’s a lovely, warm-hearted person, who only believes she’s helping girls and women who have no other recourse, and on the bottom line, she is. But yes, these people have to be stopped.

But if you’re going to stop them – if you’re going to stop people like Vera Drake, underfunded, undereducated, cheerful but relatively clueless, from accidentally endangering women and girls who need terminations, you need to do more than simply make them illegal. You need to replace them – as was subsequently done on both sides of the Atlantic. You need to replace them with safe, clean, compassionate healthcare, so that women and girls of any social or economic standing can get the terminations they need, free of stigma, social scandal, or judgment. By making that illegal in any state, in any nation, all you do is increase the likelihood that people like Vera Drake, and the market she unwittingly supported, will increase in number, in size, and in exploitative, dangerous practice.

While Vera Drake was most likely intended as a compelling character study and a look at the hypocrisy of healthcare provision and moral judgment governed by lines of money and class, there’s no doubt that it becomes more relevant as a social prophecy with every year that passes, and every push towards criminalizing what should be essential healthcare, and both the people who seek it and the people who provide it.

Watch Vera Drake again in 2022. Marvel at the characterisation and the natural way the characters interact. Wonder at the realistic feel of the piece.

And then weep for those, 70 years after it was set, who will find themselves trapped by the same moral hypocrisy it exposes, where poor women and girls will be forced either to carry unwanted children to term or to seek out a modern day Vera Drake (or someone far, far worse), while the rich will discreetly access the services that should be available to all.

Watch Vera Drake today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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