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The issue that dares not speak its name

'Vera Drake' addresses abortion head on and lands in the middle of opposing camps

Divorce? Easy. Premarital sex? You’re joking. Homosexuality? Yawn. These topics — once highly controversial or even proscribed from being mentioned, let alone depicted, onscreen — are run-of-the-mill fare at today’s multiplexes.

Yet the subject of abortion, though legal in most Western countries, is virtually absent from films. Only pedophilia (subject of another contender, “The Woodsman”) and incest remain greater cinematic taboos.

Which is why “Vera Drake,” Mike Leigh’s latest feature, is an intriguing case. Set in England in the 1950s, the movie tells the story of a cheery charwoman, the eponymous Mrs. Drake (the much-praised Imelda Staunton), who performs abortions without pay as an idiosyncratic public service. Significantly, the film addresses abortion unflinchingly, though not graphically.

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“I wanted to draw the audience gently into considering the moral dilemma of dealing with unwanted pregnancies,” Leigh says via phone from London. “I wanted to do that without falling into the trap of black-and-white propaganda or polemics. Vera is a respectable, happy person. She does what she does because she believes it is right, even though she knows it’s against the law. She does it because it has to be done. But society overtakes her, and that destroys her.”

In addition to his obvious sympathy for the young women undergoing the procedure, Leigh evinces understanding for the police arresting and interrogating Vera, as well as for her flabbergasted family, from whom she kept her illicit activities secret.

That complexity has earned “Vera Drake” rare bipartisan praise, with kudos from unexpected quarters. In his review for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which takes a dogmatically dim view of abortion, Harry Forbes called the film “superbly written and acted,” suggesting Leigh “goes to pains not to make Vera a heroine.” He also lauded Leigh’s script for having “all the subtle nuances of ‘real’ people reacting to a domestic crisis.”

Mary-Jane Wagle, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, is on the opposite side of the abortion debate. She called the film, “an important piece of women’s history,” adding, “I think it gives us a sense of what kind of situation we would go back to if abortion were illegal in this country. So it’s a cautionary tale. I think it also shows that desperate women will find ways to get the services they need.”

Addressing a hot-button issue that draws praise from polar opposites is no small achievement. But Leigh has achieved an uncanny balancing act. “I’m inviting audiences to debate and consider this topic,” he says. “I want to leave space for the audience to do that. Of course, nobody who looks at ‘Vera Drake’ could think that I’m saying we should go back to days when terminating pregnancies was illegal.”

During the days when terminating pregnancies was a criminal act — before 1973 in the United States and prior to 1968 in England — addressing the subject onscreen was especially controversial. Yet even then, the reality of abortion was acknowledged, albeit often obliquely and censoriously.

In 1934, two major studios included abortion in movie plots — “Men in White” (MGM) and “Dr. Monica” (Warner Bros.). The MGM pic, based on a Sidney Kingsley play, featured Clark Gable as a workaholic doctor who gets a sympathetic nurse pregnant, with Myrna Loy playing his socially ambitious wife.

“Dr. Monica” cast Kay Francis as a successful female physician who refuses to abort the fetus of an unmarried friend. After the woman, a pilot, unsuccessfully tries to terminate the pregnancy herself, Dr. Monica adopts the unwanted baby, whose father, is turns out, is the doctor’s own wayward husband. The pilot, by the way, flies into the wild blue yonder, never to be heard from again, though suicide is not mentioned explicitly.

Not until 1951, when another Sidney Kingsley play made its way to the screen, was abortion treated with greater sympathy. In “Detective Story” (Paramount), Kirk Douglas plays a ruthlessly righteous cop whose dogged pursuit of an abortionist leads right to his own wife, Eleanor Parker, in an Oscar-nominated performance.

By 1957, a sense of what was morally, as opposed to legally right, began to gain ground in Hollywood. “Peyton Place” includes a subplot in which Selena Cross (the Oscar-nominated Hope Lange) is raped and impregnated by her stepfather, Lucas (Arthur Kennedy, Oscar nommed), whom she later kills in self-defense. During her murder trail, kindly Dr. Swain (Lloyd Nolan), who aborted Selena’s fetus under false pretenses, reveals the shocking truth concerning Lucas’ death.

The 1960s may have been a time of free love, but the consequences could be costly. In “Love With the Proper Stranger” (1963), Natalie Wood’s innocent Angie gets knocked up Steve McQueen’s caddish Rocky. As they barely know each other, abortion seems the only answer. But once the procedure’s dangers become apparent, Rocky nixes it, leaving them both in a quandary. The film’s happily-ever-after ending contrasts markedly with the veracity of the pic in general, which earned Wood her third and final Oscar nom. Two English films addressed the topic more honestly, or at least less sentimentally. In “The Pumpkin Eater” (1964) Anne Bancroft (also Oscar nommed) played Jo, a troubled, thrice-married wife whose life revolves around a brood of unruly children and a largely absent screenwriter husband, Jake (Peter Finch). When Jo gets pregnant yet again, Jake pressures her into having an abortion — he even uses the “A” word — which because of her mental instability is deemed legal. Even Jo’s mother approves, calling it “that sensible operation.”

The first version of “Alfie” (1966), with Oscar-nominated Michael Caine in the lead, was a lot harder edged than the recent Jude Law starrer. Almost sociopathic in his mistreatment of women, Alfie uses and discards women like Kleenex. Having already abandoned one woman and their child, he decides to go the abortion route with Lily (Vivien Merchant in — you guessed it — an Oscar-nominated perf), the wife of a friend he’s carelessly impregnated.

As the operation unfolds in his flat, Alfie turns to the camera to offer his philosophy: “My understanding of women only goes as far as the pleasure,” he says. “When it comes to the pain, I’m like every other bloke: I don’t want to know.”

Though not explicitly depicted, the scenes of the abortion and its aftermath are the film’s most harrowing, with Alfie, in a rare moment of reflection, even crying. But it’s Merchant’s grim-faced Lily, contorted in pain and drained of emotion, that lingers in the memory.

Curiously, once abortion became legal in the U.S. and U.K., confusion lingered about depicting it on film. The subject was raised in “Dirty Dancing” (1987) and more prominently in “The Cider House Rules” (1999), but both were set in the years when abortion was illegal, as is “Vera Drake.”

Alexander Payne’s first feature, “Citizen Ruth” (1996), actually wrestled with abortion as a present-day phenomenon, but it’s humorous-cum-cynical take on all sides of the abortion debate in America leaves its stance ambiguous.

Which brings us back to Leigh. Though no one would question the seriousness with which he treats abortion in “Vera Drake,” his setting the pic more than 50 years in the past inevitably introduces a certain distance between the film and its audience.

Yet such a gulf may be necessary for people to consider the issue rationally. “Abortion cuts to the very center of matters of existence and life,” says Leigh. “And though I’ve dealt with it for 2½ years in making this film, it’s still an uncomfortable thing. You have only to think that you could have been aborted to understand how sensitive a topic this is.”