The banality of Vera Drake's evil:

Did Director Mike Leigh intentionallly make a pro-life movie?



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In her reporting on the trial of a Nazi war criminal for The New Yorker, political theorist Hannah Arendt surprised and unnerved her readers. She did so by portraying Adolph Eichmann not as the monster readers had expected—or even hoped--to find. No, she showed them a man not unlike their co-workers or even themselves, a mediocrity, a petty bureaucrat, a classic suck-up just trying to keep his bosses happy.

Arendt used the phrase the “banality of evil” to describe Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust. In watching British director Mike Leigh’s justly acclaimed movie, Vera Drake, viewers may find themselves applying Arendt’s now famous phrase to the film’s eponymous heroine. The interesting question is whether Leigh intends them to do so.

In the way of plot summary, Vera Drake is a sweet and selfless wife, mother, cleaning lady, and back alley abortionist. She and her decent, loving husband, Stan, live a quietly cheerful life in the otherwise grim, cramped quarters of a post-war London flat. Sharing the flat are their two unmarried, adult children: Sid, a tailor and something of a playboy; and Ethel, a plain and painfully shy factory worker. Crowding the quarters even more is perennial guest, Reg, a deeply withdrawn bachelor. To a person, the family members eagerly nurture Reg’s interest in the slowly flowering Ethel.

None of the family knows anything of Vera’s sideline as an abortionist. She performs the abortions as she does any of the many good deeds she does in her everyday life—with relentless good cheer and without recompense. An unsavory abortion broker charges the women for Vera’s services, but she passes none of the money on to Vera. In Vera’s own mind, she’s “just helping out” when these hapless women “got no one else to turn to.” Her innocence may seem improbable, but Leigh makes it seem a credible and even necessary part of her character.Warning: those who do not wish to know the movie’s outcome, should stop here.

The typical art house audience pulls desperately for Vera. When the police find their way to Vera’s flat after a customer nearly dies from a botched abortion, viewers shudder on Vera’s behalf. In a parallel plot, Leigh has shown that the rich can procure a safe abortion by buying a mental health exception from a winking psychiatrist. The poor have no such recourse. When an unsmiling judge sentences Vera to two and a half years in prison, the audience is saddened, even outraged.

“Leigh's point,” argues reviewer Roger Ebert in an entirely typical critical summary, “is that those with 100 pounds could legally obtain an abortion in England in 1950, and those with two pounds had to depend on Vera Drake, or on women not nearly as nice as Vera Drake.”

Yes, that much is true, but Leigh may have intended a deeper message still. This, remember, is post-war Britain. The men speak in hushed tones of the death they have seen abroad. The women speak in hushed tones of the death they have seen in the streets of London. In a Britain yearning for rebirth after the horrors of war and Holocaust, life is precious. Yet throughout this period, Vera has been quietly killing “babies,” a word that only a policeman uses and he for lack of any others. Indeed, in the previous twenty or so years, she has probably ended a thousand or more young lives. For her part, however, Vera cannot even bring herself to say out loud what she has been doing.

Scrupulously fair, Leigh presents the police as impressively humane and the courts as just, if a bit cold. Nor does he present the women facing abortions as the “piteous” victims Ebert and other critics claim them to be. One, a smartly dressed party girl, casually admits that this abortion is not her first. Another attractive young woman has betrayed a husband fighting in Korea and needs to dispose of the evidence. Others have husbands or boyfriends who care but are shut out of the decision-making process. In every case, the women seek abortions not as a matter of life or death, but to avoid inconvenience or embarrassment or further impoverishment. The only rape victim—and that a “date rape”--is the rich girl who gets the psychiatric exemption.

In the movie’s most telling scene, Vera comes to the dismal flat of a young, frightened West Indian. While Vera goes about her cheerful preparations, this lonely black woman tells Vera of her fear and isolation and pleads with her to come back to help. No, Vera tells the woman as blithely as she tells the others. There is no need. The young woman has only to make her way to the toilet in a day or two and flush the problem away. It’s that simple. In no case, not even this one, does Vera go back to check on her patients, and she never gives her name.

In only one case does a client recognize Vera, and that is the mother of the girl who almost dies. In fact, the girl would have died had not the mother finally relented and called the doctor. Only reluctantly, does the mother finger Vera. At this point, the audience has every reason to believe that other women might have fallen ill as well, the West Indian girl especially. There was nothing unusual about the botched abortion, and the West Indian had no one to call to save her if hers too had gone badly.

What moves the audience, even those hostile to Vera’s calling, is the shattering effect of her arrest on her entirely sympathetic family. Of note, although her husband and children lend Vera their emotional support, none among them excuses her actions or protests her sentence. The only person who does come to her defense is the slightly daft neighbor who has been shyly wooing Vera’s daughter, Ethel.

Reg explains that he grew up as one of six children in two cramped rooms and says sympathetically, “If you can’t feed them, you can’t love them.” Reg, however, somehow got fed and got loved. His charming courtship of Ethel provides an essential plot line. Upon Vera’s arrest, the viewer worries more that Reg will abandon Ethel than that Vera will go to prison. Happily, he does not. The inescapable irony, however, is that had there been a Vera Drake in the life of Reg’s mother, there would have been no Reg to woo Ethel.

Ironically, too, when not killing the unborn, Vera herself is a veritable life force. It is she who brings nourishment and nurture to a series of shut-ins, her mother included. These lonely souls would experience little of either without her. Indeed, Leigh seems to be saying that one can find happiness anywhere, that all lives are worth living, even the poorest and most seemingly hopeless.

New York Times reviewer, Manohla Dargis, underestimates the film’s writer/director, claiming, “It's clear where Mr. Leigh stands,” No, it is not clear at all. In interviews, Mike Leigh has been as deftly ambivalent as he in this excerpt from an indieWIRE interview:

Of course, I'd take a pro-life position. Of course, I think it's an overpopulated, shrinking planet and I think it's disastrous that unloved children are born in this chaotic world. But on the other hand, [abortion] is traumatic, disastrous and you are destroying life. But I'm concerned with filmmaking, not politics. I'm concerned with making a film that confronts the audience with a dilemma.

Of note, Leigh dedicates this film to the ''loving memory of my parents, a doctor and a midwife.” No one dares to challenge a dedication to one’s parents, even those whose professions are life and birth. Had Leigh been more explicitly pro-life in his interviews, he would have alienated the critics who can make or break the film. Better that they confront the dilemma themselves.

Pro-life advocates should not avoid this movie because of its subject matter. Their voices are needed to frame the debate. When the Times’ Dargis remarks, “In the end Vera performs abortions simply because, as she repeatedly says, she wants to help other women,” someone needs to remind Dargis of the emptiness of that claim. In the end, after all, Eichmann sent Jews to the gas chamber because he was “only following orders.” Evil is sometimes that banal.



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