British filmmaker Mike Leigh’s film, Vera Drake, is about a factory worker and mother who, in defiance of the law, gives free abortions to women. As usual with films about British working class life, it’s also about the tyranny of the British class system. And, if you look a little closer, it’s about a deeper theme that is close to Leigh’s heart.
Vera is a saint-like figure in a bleak mid-20th century working class community – a devoted home maker, revered by her family and all who know her. By day, she tests and packs light bulbs; in her off hours, she cleans middle class houses. She also ministers to the elderly and infirm, never asking anything in return. But there is a secret side to Vera’s life: she helps women terminate unwanted pregnancies. In a memorable series of vignettes, Leigh portrays the main reasons women have abortions: poverty, rape, pregnancy-out-of-wedlock, and, in one poignant scene, sheer maternal exhaustion. Vera is competent and cheerful in face of her clients’ despair, anxiety and fear. But her necessarily primitive methods court danger. Inevitably, one of her charges gets infection and nearly dies. The police are notified. Vera is charged, tried and sent to jail for 28 months.
Leigh and his production team depict the narrow confines of postwar working class life with breathtaking beauty and economy: the narrow tenement passageways, the dingy cafes, the shabby close quarters where people perch like trapped birds – seemingly content with endless cigarettes and cups of tea. However, Leigh’s real subject is class oppression through language and thought control. It’s a theme Leigh has dealt with before, notably, in his film Naked (1993). In a brilliant depiction of a worker driven to the edge of madness by poverty and his own insights into the nature of class society, Leigh examines the flip side of the Vera Drake character: a marginalized man who understands well how the world works and who is considered a raving lunatic for talking about it. The film’s a tragicomic tour-de-force. With Naked and now, Vera Drake, Leigh has created important works about what George Orwell perceived as the relationship between politics and language.
Leigh has never shied away from the comic side of working class existence: his humane intention is so obvious that there is no hint of condescension. Doubling as script writer, he creates scenes that are highly entertaining in their depiction of workers faced with a poverty that is profoundly cultural as well as material. At times I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But my ambivalence turned to anger as Leigh’s portrait of workers – kept almost infantile in their awe, respect for and fear of class and police authority – snaps into focus. This is a world ruled by a particularly British form of terror: the police are gentle in their procedures, the legal process is refined and subdued. As the voice of a ruling class utterly confident in its position of superiority, the judge’s lecturing of Vera for “the extreme seriousness” of her crime is infuriating.
The film takes place in 1951 (sixteen years before abortion was legalized in UK), just 2 years after Orwell published 1984. It’s easy to forget, that, while ostensibly writing about a dystopia decades in the future, Orwell was commenting on contemporary Britain as well. In the novel, one of the Newspeak engineers says, “[we’re] cutting the language down to the bone . . . Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year,” and, “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” Confronted with the fact of Vera’s flouting of an antiabortion law passed in 1861, the family is utterly shamed and humiliated by their mother’s transgression. But, apart from a few “How could you do it, Mum?”s, there is no discussion, nor questioning of the law, nor rage at their multi-layered oppression. Instead, Vera weeps with childlike shame. At her sentencing, her inability to utter a single word in her defense is devastating.
In prison, Vera meets two abortionists like herself. They have no analysis – no “Women’s Right To Choose” slogans are uttered here – just a grim determination to carry on: both are “in” for the second time. But Vera takes no comfort in their minimal posturing: she has been denied the vocabulary to express anger, defiance and will to help her sisters.
Some critics have dismissed Vera’s saintly silence as unbelievable. An eloquent self- defense might have satisfied an audience eager for a “feel-good” ending, but such a device would have been a denial of history and of Leigh’s central theme. The British have made an industry of self-hatred – it’s been a cultural mainstay since the loss of the Empire. It would be easy to dismiss (or faintly praise) Vera Drake as a rehash of familiar “Isn’t the class system terrible!” themes. But Vera Drake exposes an aspect of class rule that inspired Orwell to produce his brilliant satire. The trivial conversations, the lack of books or newspapers – even among the middle class – the complete lack of perspective beyond their humdrum daily concerns, make for scenes that are flawless in their depiction of a people utterly bamboozled by one of the oldest, most experienced, highly-skilled and subtly vicious ruling classes on the planet.
Vera Drake provides an artful look at a chapter in British working class life in which – despite the sacrifice and promise of two world wars – little had changed since Engels wrote The Conditions of The Working Class In England, in 1892. Contemporary British popular culture, too, is hobbled by a nearly-complete absence of serious intellectual, mass-circulation publications. Rather, it is driven by a familiar mix of sports, celebrity and a perpetual media uproar focused on scandal. The reasons, according to Leigh and Orwell, are clear. Class rule continues to degrade public discourse and marginalize serious criticism in an era when the very forces that create a need for the heroic Vera Drakes of the world are again on the march.