British realist director Mike Leigh’s 2004 drama ‘Vera Drake’ focuses on the story of its title character (Imelda Staunton), a working class woman performing backstreet abortions in postwar London. Following the pseudo-documentary works of British New Wave filmmakers Ken Loach or Lindsay Anderson, Leigh delivers a social drama offering an insight on the medical, financial and domestic circumstances of working class families in 1950s England, using objective camerawork and a screenplay based on unscripted actor improvisation in order to create a film that is able to present a fragment of reality.
At the end of his article on Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic ‘Bicycle Thieves’ French film theorist André Bazin (famous for praising photography and cinema for being a superior art form being able to capture reality without the creative intervention of man) described the film as ‘one of the first examples of pure cinema, no more actors, no more story, no more sets, which is to say that in the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality there is no more cinema.’ Italian neorealism seems to be a key movement in the historical context of realism indeed. Its successful use of general atmosphere, authenticity, on-location settings and social/political context inspired filmmakers and was followed by cultural movements such as the French New Wave (example: Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 ‘Breathless’), the ‘angry young men’ of the British Kitchen sink realism (Tony Richardson’s 1962 ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’) and the Danish avant-garde Dogme 95 (Lars von Tier’s 1998 ‘Idiots’). More recent examples could be Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’ or Cristian Mungiu’s ‘4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days’ (the latter touching on the subject of illegal abortions as well). Descendant of postwar British realism, Mike Leigh is a consistent filmmaker commenting on the subjects of poverty, alienation, social gaps or rootlessness. Golden Lion winning and Academy Award nominated ‘Vera Drake’ might just be his most powerful film.
Vera Drake, a feminist ‘neo kitchen sink’ film focuses on protagonist Vera Drake – ‘wife, mother, criminal’, as the poster of the film says -, a cheerful middle-aged lady working as a cleaner, who takes care of her family and her infirm mother and generally tries to help people. This is her motivation for being a back-alley abortionist, which she doesn’t make a profit off – she wants to help. In spite of her intentions, after one of her patients nearly dies due to medical complications, she is found out about and has to face court, being sentenced to a minimum of 18 months in prison. What makes Leigh’s morally controversial story realistic is his process of creating the characters with the actors through improvisation. One of the most memorable scenes of a family dinner interrupted by the appearance of the police is a great example to explain Leigh’s method. During months of character research, discussion and improvisation the actors of the film are only aware of their own character’s perspective and knowledge of a situation. The Drake family celebrate the engagement of Vera’s unsociable daughter Ethel to the similarly withdrawn bachelor, Reg. Frank, brother of Vera’s husband Stan announces that his wife is pregnant. Vera jumps up from her chair to congratulate the couple. As the result of the improvisation (which the final screenplay is based on) the actors are able to give honest performances, getting as close to their characters’ emotions and thoughts as possible. The long, static takes and objective compositions give space for informal crosstalk and natural behaviour. Similarly the final scenes of character confessions in Leigh’s ‘Secrets & Lies’, the appearance of the policemen suddenly surprises the family members. As actress Imelda Staunton remembers the rehearsals: ‘That whole scene is the result of a … seven and a half hour improvisation, where I didn’t know the police were coming, so I nearly had a heart attack.’ As the family knows nothing of Vera’s illegal activities, her despair is grounded. A close-up of her face expresses shock and fear. (Bazin would possibly find Leigh’s occasional use of subjective shots manipulative because they violate the continuity of dramatic space. But then again, his ideal would have been a film lacking montage, a concept only Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 ‘Russian Ark’ was capable of adapting.) In her fear Vera goes silent and hardly talks in the rest of the film – when she does, she whispers. While the detective inspector seems to understand her situation, she is still forced to answer explicitly to the questions concerning her ‘job’. Her unconscious barrier between the abortions and herself is violated – she has to acknowledge her crime, an otherwise suppressed thought as earlier in the film she is shown unwilling to offer any emotional help for her patients, trying to leave the room as soon as possible, with the same routine sentences and advising a cup of tea every time. Her attitude towards abortion itself is the same as it is towards cleaning or cooking, a task she desperately tries to finish without emotional attachment.
While touching on different social subject such as war casualties and working class poverty in general, the film mainly focuses on the situation of women during the period, and doing that also comments on present day controversy concerning abortions. While appointing a main character, Leigh takes a look at the life of his other characters too (as most of his films showcase parallel story-lines, except for the grim ‘Naked’). Contrasting the bedroom abortions, the film presents Susan, an upper class young woman for whose family Vera Drake cleans. After Susan falls victim to a date rape and gets pregnant she has to pay the price of 150 pounds for a clinical abortion – a price Vera’s patients couldn’t possibly afford. During her rather uncomfortable conversation with a psychiatrist she tries to hold back her tears answering the questions about losing her virginity, the identity of her baby’s father and her mental state at the moment. The film is not aimed at judging her as part of a financially stable social class – although she doesn’t have to suffer from the financial consequences of getting pregnant, she does suffer from shame, humiliation and the trauma of the forced intercourse. Leigh therefore doesn’t use one-dimensional characters to make a political point – he cares about character depth as much (if not more) than his characters’ circumstances. The working class women and Susan are both part of the same system, only struggling in different situations.
Although Vera Drake relies on external circumstances more than earlier Mike Leigh movies, it succeeds in painting an honest picture not only on the different views on such a controversial subjects as social class differences or abortion itself, but on human relationships and behaviour too. Leigh’s naturalistic dialogues, unobtrusive cinematography and historically accurate mise-en-scéne supports the story about a woman losing her battle against society – either if she is right or wrong. Similarly to the protagonist of ‘Bicycle Thieves’ left alone without any hope, the broken figure of Vera Drake climbing up the prison stairs is a tragic hero. Her tragic story, similarly, captures true realism.