Any film about abortion is asking for trouble. Along with religion and the death penalty (and, with the electoral race closing, political stances), it is one of the easiest topics to pick a fight over, and grist to the mill of divisive hacks looking for controversy. Luckily, Mike Leigh is after art, not polemics. In his latest movie, Vera Drake, abortion figures in centrally but subtly, complexly, as part of the life fabric the director and his actors have woven around the characters -- the issue provides the narrative with its tragic underpinnings as well as its subversive undertones. Human vicissitude for Leigh is the essence of drama, and the Big Theme, no matter how weighty, always takes a backseat to the emotional verity of the people on the screen. Vera Drake is no "problem picture," but a compelling political document, stubbornly humanist.
The setting is London in 1950, with the effects of the war still fresh in the nation's memory. Vera (Imelda Staunton), stocky, button-nosed and warm-voiced, is a humming busybody, always in motion -- when not polishing upper-scale homes, tending to her elderly mum or fluffing up pillows for sick friends, she darts about the cramped spaces of her slum flat, where she leads a happy life with her husband (Phil Davis) and adult children (Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly). When needed, Vera's kindness extends to the occasional hush-hush abortion, a trade she's been plying, unbeknownst to her family, for twenty years: asking for nary a shilling, she packs up her tools kit (syringe, cheese grater, soap bar, water basin) and assists the frightened lot rounded up by her considerably less favor-inclined pal (Ruth Sheen).
The film, like Leigh's marvelous Gilbert & Sullivan reconstruction Topsy-Turvy, is an uncharacteristic travel back in time for a director who has, since his appropriately-titled debut with Bleak Moments, been obsessively concerned with the kitchen-sink drudging of present-day, lower-class proles. Leigh's attention to detail never period-piece dust settle over the proceedings, his social commitment always eschewing declamatory agitprop. In the modern British cinema, Leigh lies stylistically somewhere between Ken Loach's harsh documentarian eye and Terence Davies' full-bodied, poeticized subjectivity, though his reputation as a resolute realist is somewhat misleading. His extensive stage experience often shows in the theatricalization of character, so that the director's commentary flows through the presentation of the screen-dwellers -- which just as often (and less happily), leads into Leigh's caricaturist vein (see Heather Tobias in High Hopes, Timothy Spall in Life Is Sweet, or Marion Bailey in All or Nothing, and you have a "naturalism" that's close to Kabuki).
When complications from one of her abortions lead the authorities up to her doorsteps and into her daughter's engagement party, Leigh holds the camera on Staunton as her ever beaming face withers and scrunches up in anticipation for the torment to come. Returning home from the police station to await trial, her purposeful gait reduced to stooping, she has to face the knots of her family and friends, ranging from the supportive bewilderment of her husband to the scorn of her son (who calls her "dirty") and sister-in-law (Heather Craney). (Her daughter's beau, a sad sack splendidly played by Eddie Marsan, unties his tongue long enough to offer a lonely toast during their miserable Christmas dinner together.) Abandoned, prosecuted, her martyrdom scored to celestial welling -- a saint? Is that what is one to make of Vera Drake?
I think Leigh's portrayal is more complex than that. J. Hoberman was reminded of Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, though the Dreyer heroine Staunton's Vera brings to my mind is Anna Svierker, the elderly witch burned at the end of the first movement of Day of Wrath. Abortion isn't made into a projection of patriarchal anxieties like witchcraft was in that 1943 masterpiece, and Vera's pain-wrecked but still stiff upper-lip is a far cry from the old woman's cursing fury in the bonfire -- yet in both films the women are punished for acts deemed "evil" by a society that never bothers to look closer for the human details. Without evading its physical realities (the traumatic pain and shame of Vera's clients), Leigh links abortion to the issue's social implications: the women Vera aids (young, middle-aged, proletarian, socialite) form a concise view of female turmoil beneath London's becalmed fašade. In the bigger picture, money inevitably plays a larger role than morals -- in a parallel narrative, a well-off girl (Sally Hawkins) is date-raped and manages, for a hefty fee, to arrange for a legal abortion.
In that sense, Vera's cheery serenity is either a psychological detachment of the implications of her actions or a conscious rejection of hypocritical laws -- thus an act of defiance, and as such a far greater threat to society. Either way, Leigh's view is one less of saintdom than of sympathetic but harrowing inquiry, looking not simply at laws but at people. After all, the family has always been at the heart of the director's work, and the dramas of Meantime, High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, Secrets & Lies and All or Nothing emerges from the tensions within their troubled clans. Leigh prods on in Vera Drake, and if the film's topicality seems lukewarm to viewers expecting hot-button confrontation, it's because he is too aware of the complexity of the issue (and of the people involved in it) to simply pit one side against the other. To an artist truly interested in human beings, there are no easy answers.