Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Imelda Staunton, Richard Graham, Eddie Marsan
Duration: 125 minutes
Vera Drake, a film by Mike Leigh, won the Golden Lion at the
61st Venice Film Festival. This British film won a further
boost when Imelda Staunton was named as Best Actress.
When it screened halfway through the festival, headlines appeared:
a film about abortion. The presumption seemed to be that Vera
Drake was 'pro-abortion'. A potential scandal makes for ready
copy. This continued in most of the reporting about the film
and its awards. The buzz about Vera Drake being a front-runner
for the big award led to speculation about how the Catholic
church would respond. Italian journalists are said to have
a reputation for being critical of the church, if not stridently
anti-clerical at times, so this would provide a field day.
In the event this did not happen, although the members of
the Catholic jury for the SIGNIS award (for the World Catholic
Association for Communication) were alerted to the sensitivity
of the situation.
Two factors contributed to a more intelligent discussion of
the film. First was the film itself. Mike Leigh is a master
film-maker. He has won awards in Cannes for Naked and his
very moving, Secrets and Lies. Other films include the Gilbert
and Sullivan portrait, Topsy Turvey as well as the picture
of very ordinary London life, All or Nothing. Vera Drake is
in the All or Nothing tradition. Vera Drake is a fifty-year-old
housewife in North London in 1950. She is generous to a fault.
Nothing is too much trouble for her. Everyone says she has
a heart of gold. She is the proverbial good woman. The first
half of the film is a moving portrait of this woman whom Imelda
Staunton's performance makes memorable.
Without any lead in we are shown how she also performs syringe
abortions for women and girls 'in need'. She has done this
for twenty years or more. Her family know nothing about it.
When one girl suffers complications, hospital authorities
inform the police and Vera is subject to questioning and arrest.
The second factor for discussion was Mike Leigh's press conference.
He was quick to point out that his films treat social issues
but never provide unequivocal answers. He provides the equivalent
of a case study (something like what seminarians explored
in the past during their moral theology course). Leigh noted
that, while we bring our own agenda to the story, we are invited
to consider a wider range of perspectives. It is not simply,
or simplistically, moral judgment by unnuanced application
of moral principles. Catholic confessional practice has traditionally
urged for more delicacy of conscience and a greater appreciation
of what full knowledge and full consent mean in the context
of responsibility for actions and for sin. Leigh said that
some audiences would view Vera as a saint, committed to assisting
women; others would see her as a monster, destroying lives.
Most audiences hurry out as soon as final credits roll. For
those who stay, they will see that Leigh dedicates his film
to his parents, a doctor and a midwife.
The difficulty with labelling a film 'about abortion' is that
this merely tells us the subject, or one of the subjects,
of the film. The Biblical story of David and Bathsheba is
about adultery and murder but that is just a labelling description.
What we need to know is 'how' these issues are presented.
This is the criterion for a moral evaluation of a film. This
means, as a correspondent for Vatican Radio was reported as
saying on air during the Venice Festival, that Leigh's film
is 'difficult and interesting' and 'avoided propaganda and
tentative and facile conclusions'. Catholic teaching has always
urged the faithful to condemn the sin but not the sinner.
Leigh's portrait of Vera Drake contributes to that way of
looking at her despite what she does.