British maverick Mike Leigh seems a tad disappointed that his abortionist drama “Vera Drake” has not become embroiled in America’s culture wars. “There hasn’t been many vociferous negative reactions to it,” notes the 61-year-old filmmaker. (The film even received rave reviews from Christianity Today and the Catholic News Service.)
“There was one journalist exhorting the newly elected president to watch the film,” recalls Leigh, “but it’s obvious that the film has not exercised as much debate as one might have expected.”
But for those familiar with Leigh’s realist triumphs “Life Is Sweet” and “Secrets and Lies,” the lack of controversy should come as little surprise. Leigh strives to capture the hazy conflicts of everyday life, not the kind of stark blue state/red state split that divides America. “It plainly isn’t an antiabortion film; it is an antibackstreet-amateur-abortion film,” says Leigh. “I hope it’s a film that leaves you to take part in a moral debate.”
Dedicated to his mother, a midwife, and his father, a doctor, “Vera Drake” takes place in 1950, when Leigh was only 7. While he says his father probably didn’t perform abortions, he admits, “I’m fairly sure he did deal with the aftermath of abortion.
“But it’s not really a specific evocation of their work or their world,” he continues, “other than that the obvious moral and ethical concerns involved.”
The film was deftly constructed by way of Leigh’s unique collaborative method. Before a single frame was shot, Leigh workshopped the story for six months, researching the London postwar period and refining the realities of the characters and their dramatic arcs.
While Leigh laments the $8.5 million budget for the three-month shoot, he maintains the film’s true challenge was “presenting this dilemma” — a working-class woman who performs illegal abortions out of the goodness of her heart — “without being crass and explicit.” Leigh, in part, credits Imelda Staunton’s deeply compassionate portrayal of Vera for helping to surmount that hurdle.
One scene, in particular, still resonates: When the police first arrive at the Drake’s small, cramped apartment, the camera simply rests on Vera: “In her face, you can see her world collapsing, and soft focus in the background are members of her family,” says Leigh. “That is the essence of cinema.”
Unlike his long, dark journey into the soul in “Naked” or the wider canvas of his Oscar-nominated script for “Topsy-Turvy,” “Vera Drake” “moves in a quite distilled and pure way towards its fateful conclusion,” says Leigh. “It all clicked into place like a building going up according to plan.”