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Vera Drake - Corrie With A Bad Dose Of The Richey Edwards

category international | arts and media | opinion/analysis author Tuesday January 25, 2005 15:56author by James R

Mike Leigh’s ‘Vera Drake,’ is set in Islington, 1950. Surprise, surprise, this ain't no nostalgia trip. It’s a world not far removed from Orwell’s 1930’s ‘Down and Out In Paris and London’ with his amazement at an English working class ability to subsist on regular doses of bread and tea. The dry taste of soda bread, the smell of dampness and the comfort of a 'cuppatay' is as palpable as the scars of war staring blankly from the eyes of shell shocked characters like Reg (Eddie Marsan) who having lost his mother to the blitz lives a bachelors life on ‘bread and drippings’. Rationing is still a reality, nylons are traded for smokes and parasitical black marketers and creditors make a fortune door to door, in neighbourhoods perpetually clouded in grey.

Struggling to make a wage and maintain a family amidst this is Vera Drake, played by Imelda Staunton. The role has left her with a bucket of awards and nominations, which in turn have generated a huge popular awareness about the film. Head bowed, Vera ambles along in a mole like existence cleaning the mansions of rich caricatures, oblivious to her existence, and obsessed with their own stunted and dysfunctional lives. Vera is reduced to the background in these scenes, leaving us lingering glimpses of the upper crust, in sharp contrast to Vera’s life in a Coronation Street like landscape suffering from a bad dose of the Richey Edwards. Leaving through side exits, she again emerges as the centre of attention. Carrying for her bed ridden mother, comforting a depressed neighbour over-burdened with the weight of seven children and an alcoholic husband. She chirpily jokes with her own family, there’s tea and more tea and along the way she finds time to set up her own misfit daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly), a perpetual site of piss taking, with a shell shocked Reg to their mutual delight.

It’s obvious from the film tag line ‘Wife, Mother, Criminal’ where the film is going, and as a result it takes on the atmosphere of thriller as time ticks away to the credits. You are expectant. This is a film about a back street abortionist with Madonna like qualities. Vera’s activities as a back street abortionist are normalised to the audience very early on, spliced with her role as a caring mother and neighbour. With her makeshift equipment of lye soup, disinfectant, hot water, rubber syringe appearing from a tea box to help women "what find themselves in the family way" the implications remain firmly in the background. Vera takes no payment for her "operations." Her two-faced black-market friend Lily (Ruth Sheen) who gives the addresses of women needing help does however, but without Vera’s knowledge. Leigh describes how ‘film should aspire, in a sense, to the condition of documentary’ and Vera Drake is a modern moment of silently delving into a very secret world. ‘She is doing something that thousands of people, mostly women, in all societies in all times have done’ Leigh states in one interview. That is helping others control their reproduction when they are incapable of dealing with the pressures of another child. Abortion is part of reality, and reality isn’t all that dramatic.

As a narrative, most of the plot development is about the relationship of Reg and Ethel, both caricatures that wouldn’t seem out of place in The League of Gentlemen. Many reviewers have overlooked the fact that the film elicits numerous titters from cinema audiences awkwardly relishing in the couples fumblings as infantilised adults seeking to overcome their loneliness. The crass upward mobility of Vera’s sister in law adds a further humorous dimension. Then there is a sudden shift in focus two thirds in, as a young girl nearly dies after Vera helps her. A knock on the door from the cops comes in the middle of a moment of family celebration after Reg and Ethel’s engagement. Vera is arrested for an activity her family were totally unaware of and in her criminalisation the authorities devastate a working class homestead. Her muteness and inability to overcome emotion and to control words after arrest is an expression of powerlessness in the face of a British establishment that is damning her. Yet half way through the film the plot temporarily follows the world of Susan, a daughter of one of Vera’s employers and we see another face of the same British establishment. Though displaying a similar powerlessness to Vera in the face of a quizzing psychiatrist, after a rape, Susan can obtain an abortion legally for £100. Leigh drives home the class dynamic of the issue, using Reg, repeatedly portrayed as the dimmest character to deliver the most important lines of the script ‘It's all right if you're rich, but if you can't feed 'em, you can't love 'em."

Leigh uses a Caryl Churchill-esque production method of involving the cast collectively in the development of the plot and characters. For Vera Drake they were given a brief character biography and asked to develop them unaware of the plot until a later date, the result is great performances all round I guess. Yet, ignoring the controversial subject matter, overall Vera Drake could sit comfortably on the RTE winter schedule alongside such dramatisations as ‘Amongst Women’ or ‘Tales of A Raggy Boy.’ In that sense it is a very normal drama with its strength firmly in its subject matter. The past explored in this film is indeed another country, but for us Irish the issues raised are as pertinent as ever. Be horrified at the inhumanity and class dimension of the 1950’s British attitude to abortion. But don’t ponder too long though; they got over it we’re still stuck with it.

Comments (14 of 14)

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author by redjadepublication date Tue Jan 25, 2005 16:22author address author phone

Going to see it tonight - I'll write up some thoughts tomorrow.

Good to see film reviews on! we need more!

author by Writign from San Francisco - Me!publication date Tue Jan 25, 2005 20:00author address author phone

Where we just endured the presence of 6,000 right-wing anti-choice activists on our streets, directed and choreographed by the Diocese of San Francisco. There has been a renewed focus on the issue of abortion within the radical/progressive community in San's a little late, but better late than never, I suppose, although it does look like women here are going to lose their right to have abortions/self-determine.
You would think that something as remarkable as Roe V Wade would have been a portal to more findings that established a women's right to reproduce or not, and in either case, under circumstances within her control (insofar as anything can be controlled on this planet)
But there has been very little attention paid to it as a civil rights/human rights issue. Hopefully films like "Vera Drake" will remind us what's at stake.

author by dunkpublication date Tue Jan 25, 2005 20:12author address author phone

yes interesting to take the "discussion" to the further areas of politics; culture, society, art, music, film.

reminds me of warlords of pez review:

i suppose point was, could that form of messing/ madness be brought to political events, yes of course.

author by redjadepublication date Wed Jan 26, 2005 16:49author address author phone

Vera Drake
Author: Michael O'Connor

Critics will argue, as usual with Leigh, about the class politics in the film. Certainly there is much working class bonhomie in evidence while most of the middle/upper class characters come across as shallow and materialistic. There’s one memorable scene where Vera is preparing a well to do girl for her abortion, and is offered a Martini, which she rightly passes on in favour of a nice cup of tea. At the same time, one of the most moving subplots of the film is that of a rich girl who is callously raped by a family approved suitor, and ends up pregnant. She does serve though as a way of showing the class divide in terms of abortion at the time – she ends up going to a private clinic where she’s taken excellent care of, while the girls Vera deals have their wombs pumped with a soapy solution(Medically inaccurate according to a midwife writing in the Guardian, who claims that the method depicted would have almost invariably have caused death).

author by Another film viewerpublication date Wed Jan 26, 2005 16:55author address author phone

A very good review, I thought. Hopefully 'Vera Drake' will do well at the various awards, not for the ego driven showbiz reasons but just to get this issue into the public mind.

I would have a bit of a difference about your conclusions, as here in the final paragraph.

***The past explored in this film is indeed another country, but for us Irish the issues raised are as pertinent as ever. Be horrified at the inhumanity and class dimension of the 1950’s British attitude to abortion. But don’t ponder too long though; they got over it we’re still stuck with it. ***

Just that the fact that the British resolved their back street abortion problem in 1967, Ireland benefited from that too. Prior to that Ireland had a large number of 'Vera Drakes', some motivated by charity, others money grubbers. There was also frequent infanticide and maternal suicide as well as the Magdalen laundries and the export of babies. The 1967 abortion Act resolved a lot of that for Ireland too, aided by the willingness of more women to keep their babies and endure the not-very-enjoyable life of an 'unmarried mother' in the 1970s.

The reason that the anti-choice brigade could embark on their crusade in the late 70s was in the full knowledge that the abortion escape valve to England would be used by Irish women and the lifers could prance around on the abstract moral high ground for a decade. As soon as the reality of all this legalistic twaddle hit Irish people in 1992 (the X case) the whole God Bothering facade crumbled.

But of course abortion facilities should be available here, and maybe the film will bring the issues to a wide and 'mainstream' audience. I personally was surprised by the lack of even a letter of protest from the usual suspects, maybe they are hoping ignoring it is the best policy.

author by James Rpublication date Wed Jan 26, 2005 17:05author address author phone

The biggest contrast in teh film is the women Vera Drake helps and the young rich girl who is raped and vcan afford an official abortion. Essentially this is the situation in Ireland. We have a class based abortion system where one set of women can afford to ravel to England, while the rest are stuck with economics restricting their choices.

An interview here goes into it

author by viewerpublication date Wed Jan 26, 2005 18:15author address author phone

I agree James, but it isn't just the real upper crust of Irish society that benefits from the availability of abortion in England now. Obviously it is more accessible to the better off, but so long as a woman can drag the money together (through loans, or the Credit Union), she can get an abortion. The sad and dangerous thing is that poorer women wait longer before the operation as they are getting the money together. And it is (mostly) teenage girls from deprived areas who have unwanted kids because they can't afford or don't know how to access abortion services. I never said the situation in Ireland was in any way ideal, just that 1967 was, overall, of great benefit to Irish women too.

author by James Rpublication date Wed Jan 26, 2005 18:28author address author phone

Sorry if i sounded like I was disagreeing with you there, I should have read your last post more carefully , seems we're in agreement.

author by Viewerpublication date Wed Jan 26, 2005 20:13author address author phone

:) At least it creates the illusion that someone gives a fuck on the issue and is keeping this thread alive!

But it is fine if people want to talk about it just as a film. So? Anyone else seen it?

author by Also Writing from San Franciscopublication date Thu Jan 27, 2005 07:04author address author phone .

San Francisco is an archdiocese. The protest you mention was in accordance with the US constitutional right to free speech and the conduct was in in sharp contrast to the hooliganism witnessed a few days earlier over the Bush inauguration (which took place 8 hours earlier).

author by Anotherpublication date Thu Jan 27, 2005 13:50author address author phone

It's on Mammy Cadden, a Hume St abortionist who served several years for performing illegal abortions before going down for life in 1956. She passed into Dublin Folklore after a girl died as she performed an abortion on her her, the girls body was left out in the streets where it was eventually discovered, she was arrested and went down. Apparently she wa sa society girl, hanging out with the social elites of Dublin high society, loving fast cars and a fast life. Far from Vera Drake. Anyway it's called Mamie Cadden - Back Street Abortionist , its by Ray Cavanagh and is out on Mercier Press. Have'nt read it myself, but there's been a bit about it on the auld radio of late.

author by browsingpublication date Thu Jan 27, 2005 14:49author address author phone

Carbolic (sometimes soap grated and disolved in water as in the film) and a range of disinfectants and other liquids were commonly used in the way shown in the film. Most women survived and can tell the tale (and I know some of them). Sadly, some, like Helen O'Reilly in the Cadden case (Cadden used this method), died of an embolism when air entered their bloodstreams as the placenta detached from the womb. If a syringe was dirty there was a likelihood of sepsis. (This happened to the woman in the first Cadden abortion trial in the 1940s, though she survived.) In the late 1930s a British government committee on abortion estimated that the death rate from abortion by a practiced abortionist was similar to that in childbirth.
There is information on methods used by Irish abortionists, why Irish women had abortions (based on evidence in court cases) and evidence on concerns expressed about abortion by Catholic Church, Pharmaceutical Society and police (from a range of state papers) from 1930 - 1970ish in another Mercier publication. See 'Before Cadden: abortion in mid-20th century Ireland' by Sandra McAvoy in Keogh, O'Shea and Quinlan's book 'Ireland in the 1950s: The Lost Decade' - published 2004.

author by jackiepublication date Wed Feb 16, 2005 13:06author address author phone

I always love Mike Leigh's work and this one was no exception. Im probably showing my ignorance here but does anyone know how common it was for women to do this without payment? My friend and I had a debate about this.


author by Ruthpublication date Sun Jun 26, 2005 02:45author email www.delphis_2000 at yahoo dot comauthor address author phone

This film broke my heart again... it was utterly brilliant and totally dealt with the moral dilemma of crime committed with good intent. Having faced situations similar to some of those portrayed in this film I can see both sides to the abortion/termination argument. As far as I am concerned nobody, but nobody who hasn't faced the prospect of an unwanted pregnancy, irrespective of the circumstances that led to conception, has any right to comment on a womans right to choose the course of action best for her. As for mens opinions on the matter you do not in any shape or form know what you are talking about if you oppose a womans right to choose. Mike Leigh if you're reading - thank you for an insightful and non-judgmental piece of movie craftsmanship - You the man!

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