Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is what you would call ‘salt of the Earth’. She will do anything to help anyone; as well as caring for her husband, children and mother, she also pops in to help a poorly neighbour and takes lonely war veteran Reg (Eddie Marsan) under her wing. She has a job too, as a charwoman for a wealthy family. But, unbeknownst to her nearest and dearest, Vera plays another role; she carries out illegal abortions. Not that is how Vera describes what she does, she sees her actions as another way of helping people and doesn’t even take any money for her services. When a young girl almost dies following a visit from Vera, the patient’s mother reveals Vera’s identity to the Police. Following her arrest and subsequent trial, Vera is sentenced to an 18-month prison sentence. The film is set in 1950 and was written and directed by Mike Leigh.
Imelda Staunton is totally convincing in her portrayal of Vera; no surprise that she won the BAFTA for the Best Actress in 2005. The film’s director, Mike Leigh, was awarded the BAFTA’s David Lean Award for Direction and was nominated for the ‘Best Achievement in Directing’ Oscar. In writing this review I discovered that during the making of ‘Vera Drake’, only Staunton was privy to the facts of Vera’s benevolent visits. Thus, when the reason for her arrest was made known to her family, the news was a revelation to the actors as well. The result is genuine and credible on-screen shock.
This film unnerved me, because it raises a complex issue. When I finished watching, I sighed with relief because, after all, the film was set 65 years ago and now abortion is legal in England and has been since 1967. The risks of the backstreet abortion, however pure the motivation of the perpetrators, are surely now behind us. Pregnancy out of wedlock does not carry the same social stigma as it has in the past, and an unplanned pregnancy is just as often referred to as ‘a surprise’ rather than a ‘mistake’. Moral, ethical and religious debates around abortion continue to rage but, for those women for whom going through with the pregnancy is not an option, terminations can be carried out in appropriately safe environments.
Then it hit me. I was being a complete bloody idiot. Of course, abortion is going to be made as clinically safe as possible for women like me; articulate, educated, English-speaking and highly unlikely to be stigmatised or ostracised by a pregnancy in any circumstance, I could walk in to any GP or clinic and access care. But there must surely be 100s, if not 1000’s of women and girls in Britain who simply cannot do that; for social, religious or other reasons. And that is just in my own country. I asked my friend, Google, for some information and she confirmed that according to WHO estimates, 200 women a day die from unsafe abortions. That is a staggeringly awful 73,000 deaths per year.
I am not qualified to discuss abortion rights in any more than the most general of terms, as there are dedicated and knowledgeable organisations such as Abortion Rights UK to do that. All I can say is that ‘Vera Drake’ compelled me to think hard about an issue which I have not considered for many years but which clearly deserves our attention.