Sunday, August 07, 2005

#23: On VERA DRAKE 4/21/05 Just before its commercial release last October, the British film VERA DRAKE screened at the New York Film Festival, as did MOOLAADE from Senegal. Both films went on to wide acclaim & awards, including Oscar nominations. Mike Leigh’s VERA DRAKE recounts the 1950 demise of a working class, grandmotherly London abortionist (played by Imelda Staunton in a wrenching performance among an ensemble of wrenching performances). Ousmane Sembene’s MOOLAADE portrays one woman’s challenge to West African practices of female genital mutilation. Reporting on that festival, THE VILLAGE VOICE’s J. Hoberman reviewed both films together as artistically ‘the two punchiest movies in a generally strong line-up ‘ & provided some international context for the U.S. election season by noting that, ‘The rise of religious fundamentalism has effectively re-politicized issues of female autonomy. ‘‘ Now, released on DVD three weeks before Pope Benedict’s election, VERA DRAKE seems to be flying off Central New York rental shelves as fast as THE MAGDALENE SISTERS did when that DVD came out, also circumventing local theatres’ failure to screen such fare. Briefly, this film’s first half follows Vera about her rounds of work as a cleaning lady, family care & neighborhood good deeds - including an abortion every week or so, arranged by her friend Lilly who pockets a fee unbeknownst to Vera. After an old acquaintance’s daughter winds up in hospital, the police arrest Vera during her own daughter’s engagement party. The second half recounts Vera’s confession, how her utterly stunned family variously deal with this revelation, her trial & imprisonment. Vera’s decency & martyrdom are meticulously detailed, & exposure undoes her almost completely. But this film is not so easily cast as a pro-choice tract. Writer-director Mike Leigh has spoken widely in interviews about the abortion issue’s complexity & his own belief that abortion constitutes the taking of life. He dedicates the film to his physician father & mid-wife mother (although the film’s doctors are hardly heroic). And Leigh says that using a historic period’s setting aims not to distance the issue from today’s audience but to “heighten & get to its essence.” 1950 is post-war England, a frayed moment mid-stride between World War II - with blitzkrieg bombings of London, still-fresh battle frights that Vera’s ex-soldier husband Stan confides to her in bed at night, the privations of food rations, a persisting black market - & the new turmoil & progress of the 1960’s. Abortion became legal in England in 1967, overturning statutes dating from 1814 & 1861 that criminalized “helping out young girls in trouble.” Such law was part of the 19th century consolidation of healing into the male-dominated medical profession, weeding out homeopaths & midwives, specifically targeting women practitioners. Barbara Ehrenreich for example has written extensively - three books, I think - of parallel developments in the US. Vera Drake goes to prison for using a centuries-old, common home remedy called “quickening” - carbolic soap, or lye - that, in her words, “brings on the bleeding.” At one point, Vera indignantly tells the police she would never use dangerous metal instruments on other women. As movie police go, these are unexpectedly & painstakingly gentle with her. The inspector astutely guesses Vera herself was once in the same spot as her clients. And the young police matron’s care & compassion movingly echo what Vera had shown her own often distraught clients. That echo, I think, turns out to be crucial. In those instants, it is not just Vera singly who is stopped dead in her tracks & struck dumb. An equivalence with her clients emerges – all trapped socially by convention, by circumstances, by looming ostracism & all that entails & will cost. One senses that moment of fervent bargaining in Vera’s past - this eminently fair-minded though simple woman’s promise to help out other young women in trouble, launching a double life of 20 years that constantly risked an equal catastrophe of discovery. In that world, the only thing as bad as “getting in trouble” would be helping someone else escape its judgment. Such unforgiving social arrangements produce abortion, and other amputations - of expression, of feeling, of connection. Vera’s own briskness somehow undercuts her generosity & turns out to be something queasily akin to avoidance. She is so always on her way to the next thing, humming. Can she possibly never imagine anyone before Miss Barnes was injured? Or that her family wouldn’t find out? Such social arrangements also produce collateral damage galore in this already tattered family. Vera’s husband Stan rises to stand by her, but even son Sid, arguably the character with the broadest horizons, has quite a struggle. There’s enormous dramatic tension over whether the scandal will ruin shy - well, perpetually cringing - daughter Ethel’s only chance for marriage. Mike Leigh has been making movies since the 70’s. In the past decade alone think of such films as NAKED, SECRETS & LIES, & TOPSY-TURVEY. His method entails months of improvising roles & script with his ensemble casts before actual filming. VERA DRAKE is a movie with no narrative fat on it. A cascade of short, tightly edited scenes provide mostly visual exposition. Later moments of longer close-ups skid you to rest with a jolt. Conveying the complexity of character & relationships has its foundation in a kind of visual layering. Very often what you see is one character’s reactions literally framed by action in the foreground - between two people speaking, you see Ethel in the background bidding good-bye to Reg. During the interrogation that produces Vera’s confession to the police & then her husband, in the background the inspector glances at his watch, mops his brow. Sid’s initial condemnation of Vera, so based in quick cliche, provokes a single angry, impatient glance from his sister Ethel, more eloquent than any utterance by her throughout the film. In this present age of Bush & Benedict - it sounds like a law firm & I suppose in some way it is - VERA DRAKE helps us remember that these things are not so simple. (1006)