The movie is set in an impoverished post-war England and centres on the likeable middle-aged housecleaner, Vera Drake. Vera (Imelda Staunton, Pride) happily hums her way through her seemingly simplistic life where she loves her family, cleans the houses of wealthy people and visits sick friends, including her invalid mother, to offer a cup of tea and help wherever she can. There is no mistaking that Vera’s entire life is driven by wanting to help others.
She lives with her loving, supportive and always optimistic family, husband Stan (Phil Davis, Secrets and Lies) and their adult children, Ethel (Alex Kelly) and Sid (Daniel Mays).
In her spare time, usually on a Friday afternoon, Vera performs illegal abortions in the homes of young, working-class women who are “in trouble”. Vera does not take nor want any money for “helping out” and keeps this part of her life secret from everyone around her, including her family.
After she performs a termination procedure on a young woman who as a consequence falls seriously ill, Vera’s whole world comes crashing down.
Class and hypocrisy
Vera Drake has a parallel sub-plot where a young woman from a wealthy upper middle-class background is raped on a date by a well-heeled lad, becomes pregnant as a result and wants an abortion. While sexual assault is no less traumatic for women of any class, in 1950s England we see that those who had money were able to rise above the law and buy their abortion for a hefty sum (100 guineas) from willing doctors who performed the procedure in a very pleasant private clinic.
Not so lucky were the working-class women who had to take their chances and rely on women like Vera to “help them out”.
Women’s rights through male eyes
Although Vera Drake is a movie about women’s reproductive rights made through the male gaze of director Mike Leigh, Imelda Staunton and the rest of the cast had significant input into the story, the direction it took and the character development of the film.
Leigh is a renowned unconventional filmmaker who rounds up actors to come to production with only a concept and no script. The script of Vera Drake, like in all of Leigh’s films, was created with the actors through improvisation in rehearsal for many months before shooting commenced.
“All I knew was that Mike said, ‘I’m making a film set in the fifties concerning abortion’. That’s all I knew. Mike and I created this character [Vera Drake] from the time she was born”, says Imelda Staunton.
Make up your own mind
The genius of the film is that it ultimately manages to not take sides. It cleverly presents both arguments and lets the viewer make up their own mind – a cultural conversation starter without a political or religious agenda that credits viewers with enough intelligence to analyse the subject matter themselves.
Leigh says, “I hope I’ve made a film which is not crassly polemic or didactic, black and white. I made a film which invites people to take part in the debate and I really invite the audience to confront yourselves with the question, ‘What is right and what is wrong?’”
This approach is in stark contrast to more didactic films about this subject matter, such as Unplanned, released in March 2019 across over a thousand screens in the United States. This film, released by a faith-based film production company founded by two men, written and directed by two men, and produced by five men, has been accused of pushing a specific agenda by overtly moralising and dictating how viewers should feel about abortion.
Women’s battle for reproductive rights is far from over
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 97% of all unsafe abortions occur in developing countries, but a 2015 widely influential academic study on home abortion in the United States found that up to 240,000 women just in the State of Texas had tried to terminate a pregnancy on their own.
The authors of the study found that clinic closures were contributing to these numbers, and agreed with WHO that “women who seek an abortion will do so regardless of legal restrictions. Abortions performed in an illegal context are likely to be unsafe and performed by unskilled persons in unhygienic conditions. Poor women and those affected by crises and conflicts are particularly at risk. Where there are few restrictions on the availability of safe abortion, death and illness are dramatically reduced.”
Vera Drake is more relevant now than ever.
Vera Drake airs on SBS World Movies Monday 13 July at 7:30PM and will stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast: