Leigh’s ‘Vera Drake’ takes the politics out of abortion debate | AspenTimes.com

Leigh’s ‘Vera Drake’ takes the politics out of abortion debate

Stewart Oksenhorn

It seems virtually impossible to mention the word “abortion” in more than a whisper without instigating an argument at the least. So it borders on the miraculous that Mike Leigh has made a two-hour feature film about an abortionist, with vivid depictions of the abortion procedure and its sometimes gruesome results, and avoided stepping into the political quagmire of the abortion debate.In “Vera Drake,” English director Leigh takes great care not to sidestep the subject of abortion. One long stretch of the film is almost nothing but scenes of Drake, a middle-age mother and cleaning woman in 1950s London, cheerfully visiting one young pregnant woman after another. Drake, memorably played by Imelda Staunton, makes her rounds with her bag of tools – syringe, plastic tubes, cheese grater – with the same dutiful cheerfulness that she brings to cleaning houses and taking care of her own mum. The fact that abortion is against the law might never have even occurred to her, so focused she is on helping young women in trouble. An equally foreign concept for Drake is charging money for her services, so driven is she by a sense of obligation.Drake’s innocence comes to a crashing halt when one young woman she treats becomes deathly ill. A doctor, equally driven by his own sense of duty, reports the incident to the police, and a band of officers find their way to the door of the Drake flat. Drake is eventually brought to trial and convicted; her plea that she was just helping young women in trouble is no effective legal defense.

Through it all, the moral debate over abortion remains almost entirely on the sidelines. In fact, perhaps the one false note in the film is when Drake’s son Sid (Daniel Mays) takes up the anti-abortion cause; it almost seems as if Leigh needed to give someone that side of the argument, lest he be charged with disengaging from the moral issue entirely.No, “Vera Drake” is not about the abortion issue. Leigh takes the air out of that highly charged subject by using it as a launching point for a broader, less contentious movie filled with ideas about family, duty and goodness. As usual with Leigh, there is a perfect balance of emotions.And, as usual, Leigh coaxes a note-perfect performance out of his lead actor. The camera lingers long and often on Staunton’s Drake, and finds there the resolve of an ordinary person resolved to do her part in her small corner of the world. The cast is fairly large, almost everyone – from Drake’s goodhearted husband to her intensely shy daughter to the sneaky woman who arranges the abortions – gets a voice, and the acting is uniformly excellent. Particularly effective is the police investigator (Peter Wight) who is initially hard-nosed in his pursuit of criminal activity, but who is turned sympathetic by Drake’s obvious goodness.

So, does Leigh weigh in at all on the abortion divide? Sure. His abortionist is the model of kindness and the spirit of giving. And in the final scene, in prison, Drake joins a group of fellow inmates who are comparing notes on abortion technique, and each seems as morally innocent as Drake.It is the most light-handed touch possible given to the abortion debate. And it never gets in the way of telling a story that is about people, not politics.Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings presents “Vera Drake” today, Friday, Dec. 31, at 3 p.m. Also on today’s schedule is the Bobby Darin biopic “Beyond the Sea,” directed by and starring Kevin Spacey, at 6 p.m.

Academy Screenings concludes tomorrow, Saturday, Jan. 1, with the animated film “The Incredibles” at 2 p.m., “Sideways” at 5 p.m., and Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” at 8 p.m.All films are at Harris Hall. For further information, go to http://www.aspenfilm.org. Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com