Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Vera Drake (2005)

It probably doesn’t need to be said that abortion is a touchy subject, or that there is a very real risk for a filmmaker who tackles this subject to fall into preachiness, on one side or the other. There is also a risk for the reviewer who attempts to come at the picture objectively in spite of the fact that one cannot escape the opinions one has formed prior to seeing it. A fan of Kinsey’s sex research is going to say that Kinsey portrayed him (and the field of sex research) in a positive yet fair light.

So given the fact that any opinion I have of this movie is going to be colored by my opinions on the matter itself, I must say that it is much more subtle, nuanced, and realistic than I had given it credit for. Vera Drake is a quiet, absorbing film of such strength I almost feel bad pointing out its flaws.

And there is plenty here that is not flawed. The title character is a bubbly, energetic, relentlessly cheerful woman we’d all love to have as part of our family. Her family is a loving one, and we see numerous evidence of their comfortable interaction. Throughout her day, Vera cleans houses, cares for the bedridden, and works quality control at a lightbulb factory. Indeed, some time passes before we see her perform what is the subject of the movie, and even then it is portrayed as another part of her busy day. Ah ha! you say. Bias! She’s only helping people. But it’s not that simple. No one but the woman who sets up the appointments knows of this extracurricular activity. And when her secret is revealed, only her family stands by her. Even they are motivated only by love and loyalty. Not morality.

Morality has little place in this film. Very herself never utters the words “abortion” or “pregnant.” In her own words, she “helps young girls out.” In her eyes, it isn’t a matter of right or wrong for the baby but for the mother and for the children that must be provided for. “If you can’t feed them, you can’t love them,” one character points out. This is as close as the director gets to a statement.

The movie is, however, quite slow. In the beginning this is bearable because Vera is such an adorable woman. You are drawn into her circle, and you care about the people she cares about. Nothing about this woman suggests that she would do anything to hurt anyone. And this proves to be the downfall of the movie. For when things go bad, her vigor, her cheer, her energy disappears and we are left with a barely articulate woman who seems ten years older. I cringed when I watched all the things Vera did for others, thinking about how it would sap my energy and maybe my will to live. But it was that caring and that usefulness that gave her energy. Once that was taken away, she was lost. And the film suffers for it. I thought at first the chin-wobbling and choked back words were overdoing it a bit, but I later realized that someone as ebullient as Vera, whose sense of self comes from her service to others, would indeed be brought low by the removal of that outlet.

One word about technique; the director uses very little in the way of establishing shots and no indicators of the passage of time. Characters appear in contiguous scenes which take place across town, as if stepping from one apartment and one day to another . Strangely, this was less disorienting than it sounds and lent itself to the “slice of life” approach the movie took. And it is that very realism that makes the movie so good. We are not being preached at. We are observing.

But the film presents no easy answers. We are convinced Vera believes she is helping people. We might even be convinced that she is. But she risks hurting and even killing them. Do we consider the unborn children? Or do we consider the society that makes people like Vera necessary?

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