Political Film Society - Newsletter #210 - November 1, 2004



November 1, 2004


 

VERA DRAKE REVEALS WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN IF ABORTIONS ARE BANNED Vera Drake
In 1861, Britain made abortions illegal. On November 17, 1950, middle-aged Vera Drake is arrested for performing an illegal abortion, and she is sentenced to thirty months in prison after a trial during the following January. The film Vera Drake, directed by Mike Leigh, tells her fictional story. When the movie begins, she enters an apartment, cheerily fixes tea for an invalid, and departs. At home with her husband and two grown children, she prepares meals and keeps house while singing a happy tune. Meanwhile, she is the housekeeper for four families. Out of the goodness of her heart, she "helps young women," to use her self-description of the many abortions that she performs over the years, some of which are depicted on the screen. Vera (played by Imelda Staunton) is a humble, working class Londoner who accepts no payment for her services. Instead, her life-long schoolfriend Lily (played by Ruth Sheen) locates young women in distress for Vera's services; then, without informing Vera, she accepts payment for arranging the abortions. Much of the film focuses on Vera's family life; the impact of her arrest, conviction, and imprisonment is devastating on her as well as her family, who know nothing of her extracurricular activities. What tips off the police is that a certain abortion in early November 1950 nearly results in death.

After the young girl is examined at a hospital on the verge of death, the physician reports the offense to the police, who in turn learn of Vera's role from the girl's mother. After the young woman's life is saved, the police investigators knock on the door of the Drake residence, and for the rest of the film tears flow from Vera. Her family supports her, though her son Sid (played by Daniel Mays) takes longer than the rest, and a sister-in-law Joyce (played by Heather Craney) is unwilling to show compassion to Vera. None of the members of the families for whom she works so diligently come forward to provide character references for Vera at the trial, where she pleads guilty. Upon her arrival in prison, Vera meets two who are serving longer sentences for the same crime, but she walks beyond in a daze not unlike that of her family who must cope without her and the young working class girls who sought abortions in England until the law was changed in 1967 to make abortions legal for medical doctors in the National Health Service. Today, an estimated one-third of all pregnancies within England end in abortion, and there is some agitation to limit abortions. Vera Drake is clearly an element in that debate. Before 1967, rich families were able to obtain secret abortions in private clinics for a princely sum (the equivalent of tuition for a semester at Yale), so the law was clearly aimed at controlling the poor so that there would be an ample supply of workers to do the menial labor for the rich in a United Kingdom that once was the mightiest imperial power. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Vera Drake for an award as best film on human rights of 2004.  MH