In the Angelika Theater on Houston Street, the rumble of the subway adds to the suspense of every movie and the theaters are laid out like midsized planes. Worse: the guy behind me was the kind who would watch Fox just to yell back at Bill O’Reilly. Between coughs and refolding his crackly raincoat, he tossed angry comments at the screen like a Yankee fan getting trounced by the Red Sox.
“Oh for crying out loud. She has a frickin’ right to her body. It should be legal,” he said, as a young girl cried and dithered before her backstreet abortion. When the police came to arrest the woman who performed it, he was bitter. “Here come the pigs. Here come the pigs. Yeah, just watch this.”
I wish he had. He missed the point. Mike Leigh’s movie, about a North London family in 1950, has compassion in every frame. His post-war London is drab and freezing, indoors and out, and yet you want to warm yourself at Vera Drake’s hearth–even though it’s a two-bar electric fire turned on as a luxury. Imelda Staunton’s currant-bun face reflects her Irish name, and like some of the women of my childhood, her character’s care for others seems as natural as breathing. Vera Drake cleans rich people’s houses by day, pops in to make tea for sullen invalids, looks after her bed-ridden mother, and takes in bedsit waifs. She is plain as suet, blessed with cheerfulness, and cherished by her husband and two children. You don’t often see people like her in movies or books. Vera makes happiness look easy, but Leigh takes pains to show that it is, instead, a series of choices, and far harder than misery.
Vera also helps girls in trouble. Girls who can’t manage. She’s done it for years, in secret, for no money, grating pink carbolic soap into a basin of hot water and disinfectant. She calms them down before she syringes the soapy solution into them with a rubbery hose. “Don’t you worry, dear, you’ll be right as rain.”
When one almost dies, she is arrested.
We don’t know why she did it. Leigh’s restraint is beautiful. He stays with the particular, and that’s the force of the film. The “pigs” that my seatmate spat at turned out to be sympathetic and humane. 47-year-old Imelda Staunton looks agelessly ancient as Vera, as women of that generation did. Vera’s husband, who looks substantial and content at his tiny wife’s side in their tiny flat, seems to shrink beneath the high courtroom ceilings and the tall, well-fed detectives. Every period detail is perfect, down to the pointed red manicure on Fenella Woolgar, who is exasperated at the friend who begs for her help over afternoon tea. “You’ve gone and got yourself into trouble, haven’t you?”
The characters do the best they can with reality–the war is recent and vivid, the Pill has not been invented, and abortion is illegal and shameful. They are not the lunatics we depend on to effect change in the world; instead their lives are overturned by the world as it is. Leigh lets his actors show how with their faces rather than the words they can’t find, and it’s affecting. Vera’s beloved son rails at her for “killing little babies” and letting the family down. Mr. Angry in the seat behind me railed back at him. He missed what Vera didn’t: the hurt and bewilderment behind the accusations.
I’m (mostly) pro-choice, from a country that (mostly) isn’t, living in a country that’s split by the issue. Abortion is complicated. This movie is rare in showing complexity without comment. Rarer still in showing true happiness. It felt like a better choice for this election eve than _Farenheit 911_.