An abortion film and an abortion of a film
VERA DRAKE (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2004, 9)
PALINDROMES (Todd Solondz, USA, 2004, 1)
The lead description at the Internet Movie Database for this film says “abortionist Vera Drake finds her beliefs and practices clash with the mores of 1950s England.” That’s wrong on two counts — Vera Drake is not an abortionist (I’ll explain what I mean by that later) and she does not have “beliefs” on the subject. If those descriptions were true, VERA DRAKE might have been an unbearable piece of martyrdom, possibly as bad as PALINDROMES. Instead, it’s one of the best films of the year.
Like most of Mike Leigh’s films, VERA DRAKE is not heavy on plot points. It follows the kind-hearted titular character’s life (played by Imelda Staunton) as a working-class wife and mother of two in dingy 1950 north London. Who happens to perform abortions on the side. When VERA DRAKE is creating the daily life of post-war Britain, it is never anything short of superb — one of the best evocations of working-class life I have ever seen. Every detail is right, and every detail feels right. After dinner, the men in the Drake family discuss their experiences in what was still just called “the war” when I was a boy in the mid-1970s. Nobody maintains an ostentatious silence, nobody gives a great speech, nobody sheds a tear, even when saying he lost his mother in the Blitz. In fact, the German air raids are as much the occasion for trying to place what attack that was and who felt what bomb, the way people in another era might try to remember a rainstorm or blackout. When son Sid (Daniel Mays) mentions losing a mate in Palestine, he says he was ambushed by “a bunch of Pakis” — which isn’t correct of course, but is right artistically. Leigh brushes on the smallest details with the swiftness and confidence of a virtuoso — the pronunciation of CHOOZ-day; Vera’s constant refrain “I’ll make a cup of tea” or “I’ll put on the kettle”; the way Vera mashes potatoes (it’s some achievement to make me nostalgic for British “cuisine”); the son’s manner with his measuring tape at his job as a tailor’s fitter. We feel less like spectators and more like one of the family, we know these people and their world so well.
Scene after scene plays with perfect control. Even when Leigh gets schematic and manipulative with his plots — as he often does — every character is acted so perfectly and with such attention to the psychological truth of the moment that we forget the manipulations as we’re watching. For example, when police (led by a detective played by the burly Peter Wight) come to arrest Vera, her family is having a double nuptial celebration — one couple is engaged and another plans to announce a pregnancy. In lesser hands, the ironies probably would have been a bit much. But even in its implausability, the coincidence underlines that Vera has broken up her family’s happiness (that is *certainly* the point of the film’s last shot). And then the scene plays out perfectly. There’s a very lengthy, perfectly acted closeup of Staunton in which she realized her bungee cord has snapped. But can’t let anyone know. In fact, what’s so brilliant about the scene of the arrest of Vera is how as much time is devoted to appearances — going into rooms, asking who knows what, Vera answering police questions with “we’re having a party today,” Vera walking past her mystified family without a word.
Even Leigh’s direction — usually tactfully functional; his films have always been actor showcases — gets better from film to film. The cinematography draws a clear contrast between the overcast grays, drab colors and cramped spaces of the working-class environs and the high-key bright lighting and open spaces of the upper-class environs that Vera cleans as a maid. But Leigh doesn’t push the contrast too hard into either miserabilism and fruity decadence. The scene where Vera finally tells her husband Stan (played by Phil Davis) is made by the way Leigh creeps his camera in ever so slowly to intimate distance as the couple supercede the police in the frame’s composition. And then it stops, as if discreetly standing by, when the unspeakable privileged secret is revealed. This tactfully intimate and no more.
In one important sense, this is the best-acted film Mike Leigh has ever made — which is saying something since the man is the best director of actors in the world. But the downside of the “actorly” performances he coaxes from his (always stellar) casts is that even in his best films, there’s usually been one performance that’s just a bit too *much* or off-key or one-note — Timothy Spall in LIFE IS SWEET; Claire Rushbrook in SECRETS & LIES; the mother in HIGH HOPES; the son in ALL OR NOTHING; Gilbert’s father in TOPSY-TURVY. But here in VERA DRAKE, for the first time, that doesn’t happen. Nobody overacts, and not from lack of opportunity. Lesley Manville is more restrained as a “toff” here than she was in a similar role in HIGH HOPES. As the daughter and her suitor, both of whom are a bit “slow” or “daft,” Alex Kelly and Eddie Marsen are note-perfect in the sort of role that Leigh sometimes fumbles (the aforementioned Spall role). Their tentative proposal is touching without being cloying. And Marsan’s delivery of the Christmas toast to Vera is probably the movie’s high point.
VERA DRAKE is studded with small diamonds in its performances. I mentioned Peter Wight as the lead police detective, and for all the (just) praise heaped on Staunton, he may actually give the movie’s best performance since it’s probably the most difficult balancing act. He has to play a 100 percent professional whose job it is to bring down the movie’s hero, and Wight does it without himself ever becoming an unsympathetic caricature. He conveys the discomfort of having to deal with a kindly old lady, without ever letting on as to whether he supports abortion law. He does so with his body language and voice (direct without being blunt), but without ever giving a speech about The Sanctity Of The Law, like say, Kevin Costner did as an enforcer of Prohibition in THE UNTOUCHABLES. Wight’s performance and some of the things his character does simply embody what it means to love the sinner and hate the sin.
Another of the great pleasures of Leigh’s films is that he’ll use an actor for a two- or three-scene small role — here Manville, Allan Corduner and Ruth Sheen, e.g. — even though they have been brilliant as leads in his other films. Corduner’s role, as a psychiatrist certifying an upper-class woman’s eligibility for an abortion, is the kind of one-scene role that in lesser films is often either sloughed off or turned into a “character” for comic relief. But Corduner, in his voice and eyes, masters his character’s delicate balance between asking leading questions and not seeming to ask leading questions. It’s the way his face lights up without smiling when he gets the answer to his question “did he force himself on you?” This is the kind of detail that gives Leigh’s films so much texture and depth.
The film is so strong, so rich and so complex that you just want to sneak into the editing room and remove its few missteps. Like many great depictors of working-class life, Leigh has to resist shots at social climbers. But in VERA DRAKE, he’s hardly even trying in the character of Joyce, the wife of Stan’s brother, Frank. The scene when she sorta forces herself on him because it’s her time to conceive was too funny to really work, and then she tells Frank she’s pregnant … (pause) … “can I get a fridge now.” And when she’s at the Christmas party, her body language screams “I don’t want to be here” and she can’t even put on a show of considering the Dairy Box chocolates being passed around. It’s hard to credit materialism and snobbery this obvious — if there’s one thing upper-class Britons know how to do, it’s put on an appearance. And the film’s principal weakness is in its third act — there’s just too many noble closeups of Vera and some mournful music. It’s not bad in itself — Staunton is superb even when the script gets one-dimensional here and paints her in a bit, simply because she’s so successfully created a woman who cannot fathom the situation she’s in. But there’s just too much of it.
In an otherwise excellent review, James Bowman gets one significant thing about the VERA DRAKE wrong. He says “Everything about the film apart from the propaganda is done so well that the propaganda, when it comes, strikes a jarring note and sounds out of place.” I think there is little pro-choice propaganda at all in the film — apart from the basic dramatic situation of taking place at a time when abortion is generally illegal and following a character who breaks that law (which you knew going in, so there’s hardly a “when it comes”). Of course, we’re cued to sympathize with Vera, but what is significant here are the absences and, as Bowman DOES point out, the ways that Leigh and his actors so convincingly create the world of their characters that it won’t fit into propaganda categories.
I don’t know how attuned Leigh is to the abortion debate in the United States, but the film ducks some of the easiest pro-abortion talking points and makes many of the pro-life movement’s; (1) the abortion procedure Vera uses is basically injecting a soapy enema into the uterus in order to induce a miscarriage. But when asked by the police whether she ever used coat hangers or knitting needles, she blanches in horror at the thought; (2) nobody, including Vera herself, defends abortion in the abstract or utters a thought to the effect that abortion should be legal or displays any anachronistically-raised feminist consciousnesses (i.e., it is wrong to say Vera has any beliefs on the subject); (3) no legal consequences are ever threatened or even apparently contemplated for the mothers who abort, rebutting the most vicious boogie-man lie; (4) liberal film critics note (correctly as far as the point goes) that the film contrasts an upper-class woman’s getting medical exams to have what was then called a “therapeutic abortion” with Vera as abortionist to the working class. Or as Roger Ebert put it, “if you can afford a plane ticket and the medical bill you will always be able to obtain a competent abortion,” as if having to pay 50 times as much for a service is something good.
In fact, the only person to offer any abstract moral judgment is the son Sid, who says “it’s wrong though,” to his mother. She weakly says “I don’t think so,” and he angrily shoots back “of course it is. It’s little babies.” Sid is never rebutted, and his father eventually brings him back into the family fold by saying “she’s your mother. She’d forgive you anything” — a point which is perfectly true and perfectly valid for a son, but not for a citizen. Blood is thicker than water, but nobody even today thinks democratic republics operate on the basis of blood ties. Further, the father tells Sid, “I know you think she’s done bad things, but she’ll be punished enough for that.” That’s not the most-ringing endorsement of an abortionist one will hear today, and it points to how Leigh’s and his actors’ integrity in presenting the era prevents VERA DRAKE from being the pro-abortion propaganda film it’ll undoubtedly be unjustly loved and hated as. In fact, Sid’s blow-up at his mother is one of the movie’s only two or three moments of “authentic” feeling. In fact Sid explicitly plays to the contemporary choir by speaking in the name of today’s great value — authenticity. “Are we supposed to sit around, pretending to play Happy Families like nothing happened,” he asks.
Finally, the relationship of Vera’s obvious sainthood and her abortions is complex. VERA DRAKE is helped in this sense by being set in another era, which emphasizes the distances from the particulars surrounding the abortion wars of today. Practically the first thing the film does is establish Vera’s goodness — the first thing we see her do is attend to a sick neighbor, then invite a lonely man to dinner, saying “you can’t be having bread and drippings every day.” (She’s also taking care of a sick, elderly mother.) And Vera’s care for the elderly and sick distance her from today’s abortion advocates, who also (virtually to a man) advocate euthanasia on the same “autonomous self” basis as they do abortion (in fact, I saw the trailer for the reputedly toxic THE SEA INSIDE before VERA DRAKE). While Vera is portrayed as a kind of saint in most of her life, she is not one *because* she’s an abortionist or *in explicit spite of* that fact. The film refuses to set the two in opposition, choosing instead to see Vera as she sees herself — as someone whose whole being is wrapped into helping people, acting in service of others.
It would not be wholly wrong to also note there are guilty consciences here. None of Vera’s patients are as calm as she is, and one, a West Indian woman, almost appears offended that the abortion is not more traumatic. It shouldn’t be that easy, she seems to think. Plus, every reference to abortion is couched in euphemism, like the very objectless term “pro-choice” itself. Vera only tells her patients that “I’m here to help you” and when asked, her unrehearsedly rehearsed bedside manner tells them “it’ll all go away.” The word “baby,” of course, is never used. Nor (and this is more surprising) does she use the perfectly-unloaded word “miscarriage” … the closest she comes is “start the bleeding,” as if she’s just correcting a menstrual problem. Even when arrested, she can’t bring herself to tell her family. And when the police detective uses the word “abortion” for the first time in the film, Vera says, irrelevantly under the circumstances but as if preserving a point of honor for her: “that’s not what I do. That’s what you call it.”
And that’s to me, the key in answering how should a pro-life person should react to VERA DRAKE, beyond its (to me indisputable) excellence as a movie? One of the things often discussed in pro-life activism and even noted to people who pray Rosaries outside abortion clinics (as I’ve done) is to emphasize how abortion victimizes women, pointing to (among many other things and with exceptions like Barbara Ehrenreich duly noted) how many regret their abortions to at least some degree. VERA DRAKE does not say abortion is something to be proud of, and it ultimately defends the abortionist primarily in terms of family duty and the effect her jailing has on her family. The movie clearly wants you to feel sorry for Vera, but if God calls us to love the sinner, there is nothing scandalous or immoral about what this movies tries to (and largely does) achieve. As Bowman point out, as bad as hating the sin can be and which VERA DRAKE emphasizes, it’s usually preferable to pretending that sin is not sin.
Fortunately for such complexities, this fall’s other prestigious film-festival abortion movie with a pro-abortion director and star is worthy of all the loathing and hate we can muster. PALINDROMES, which has yet to be released, is a truly hateful film. Not primarily because it’s pro-abortion, mind you. If it were merely propaganda, like what some will see VERA DRAKE as being, I’d still feel obliged at least to try to bracket that and judge its merits as a work of art, the same way I’d look at TRIUMPH OF THE WILL or BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN or BIRTH OF A NATION. But PALINDROMES’s problems are even more basic than that — it truly is one of the most unrelievedly misanthropic experiences I have ever had and, like A HOLE IN MY HEART, it is unpleasant to share the theater with it.
PALINDROMES follows a young girl Aviva, played by several different actresses (to no discernable effect or reason), who mindlessly sleeps with a boy, becomes pregnant, is forced to abort by her parents, runs away for a Candide-like picaresque through a fantasy world of various sexual depravities. The largest part of the running time covers Aviva’s experiences as she’s taken in by Mama Sunshine, an evangelical Christian who has adopted a score of unwanted children.
PALINDROMES caricatures the pro-life Christian “family” — quite viciously, quite untruthfully and worst of all, totally uninsightfully. (I love how this film makes such fun of a large family of adopted children when one of the standard pro-abortion talking points has long been “how many unwanted kids have YOU raised.” Damned if you do …) PALINDROMES would qualify as hate speech against Christians if the term “hate speech” were applied neutrally. Solondz plainly knows nothing about Christian culture — the family, which is coded as evangelical Protestant in a hundred ways from the decor and pictures to the theological terminology (“saved,” e.g.), but also recites the standard Catholic “Grace Before Meals” prayer. Everyone talks in a practicedly-happy sing-songy patter that the Von Trapp kids would have found too sugary. And this ignorance cripples Solondz’s ability to make even a good satirical point.
For example, after being taken in, Aviva is kicked out of Mama Sunshine’s family because of her sexual past. I’m sure that makes good cluck-cluck material for cocktail party gabbles at the Manhattan hen coop — “nasty Christians, being judgmental” and all that sniffing. Except that it’s 180 degrees from the truth or even anything believable. If anything, evangelical Protestants have a tendency to play UP their pre-conversion sins. Rather than ostracize someone over “a past,” they eagerly detail it during Revival Week as testimony to Christ’s power — “oh, was I ever a sinner until I was found by the Lord. Let me how tell you bad a sinner I was” … etc., etc. In fact, this kind of material can even be found in such gliterati-approved movies as NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and ELMER GANTRY. What would have been truthful would have been if Aviva had been embraced for her past sins; what could have been funny was if she made up stuff to go along with (or even trying to one-up) “testimonies” from others; what could have been darkly satirical was if, having found her testimonies inadequate, she went out to commit more-outlandish sins in order to have something worthwhile to testify to or to win approval. Right there, are two more good comedy ideas than are found in PALINDROMES. Instead we get self-righteous snigger-at-flyover-Xtians cheap shots like kids saying “pass the Freedom Toast” in that annoying sing-songy timed-to-the-laugh-beat rhythm, a family contemporary-Christian song that plays like the songs sung by the Brady Bunch, the adding of “born and unborn” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and a REALLY over-the-top prayer graphically detailing every manner of abortion procedure. Said by a kid of about 7.
The tone of mockery without laughs is continual. One of the actresses playing Aviva is a very large woman, 300 pounds at least. And Solondz often dresses her in the tight-clinging, skimpy outfits of a Friday Night Disco Slut that she’s spilling out of and hanging over as if she doesn’t know how to dress “fat.” My complaint, I hasten to note, is not about sexiness or attractiveness per se, but about Solondz’s exploitation of this woman’s build and how his costume choices and the way he directs this woman are indistinguishable from an attempt to humiliate her (humiliate the actress that is, not the character she’s playing). When a shirtless Chris Farley does a Chippendale dance-off audition next to a bare-chested Patrick Swayze, that’s funny only because Farley camps it up and boogies as if he’s the sexiest man alive, born to be a Chippendale dancer. But Solondz directs Aviva, no matter who’s playing her, to play meek and depressed, the sort of person who always looks down and averts her eyes. And who speaks in a low monotone like a dog that’s been whipped once too often. Every moment looking at this 300-pound woman playing Aviva in this key, and dressed this deliberately-disgust-inducing way … you feel sorry for **the actress,** stuck in this geek show, and just want to avert your eyes from the screen.
But what makes this movie absolutely irredeemable is that these portrayals (and, of course you know you will not see pro-life Christians in a Hollywood or Indiewood movie without some tie to the handful of people who have taken to murdering abortionists) are not worse than the way Ellen Barkin (Aviva’s mother) is caricatured. I even felt sorry for pro-choice people when a character presented the case for an abortion. She tells her daughter, that if she has the baby “you’ll have to go on Food Stamps.” (“And buy big jars of mayonnaise at a Costco on Staten Island,” I wanted to add.) But then I found out I didn’t have to. Barkin goes on to tell her daughter that she aborted her sibling and tells her that if she hadn’t done so, the family couldn’t have afforded “the N’Sync tickets,” “the Gap accounts” … “the Ben N Jerry’s” (the Toronto audience was yukking it up by this point, and I practically snapped). And I don’t know how to take the fact the audience also laughed at the “it’s just a tumor” line. Even beyond the inherent mockworthy facts of the lines is the way, typical for him, that Solondz directs Barkin’s delivery of her lines — delivered with a fake conviction so practiced that it can’t be believed for a second, and with the actress pausing for every unintentional potential punch line her character serves up to give the audience a chance to laugh at her. And then, a perfectly timed two beats after a moment of reconciliation, we get the father beating on the door and yelling “open the god-damn door.”
I can’t even give PALINDROMES credit for portraying the risks of abortion — hemorrhaging and an emergency hysterectomy (even for a safe, legal surgical abortion to which rich people had access for 50 times the cost 50 years ago). Partly because it’s softened by being shot in a soft white-frame and slow piano tinkles, with the focus so soft as to make the image incomprehensibly blurry like this was a Valentine’s Day douche commercial. But also partly because it’s not from any kind of pro-life conviction. Nor is it even from a pro-choice stances that feels self-conflicted, has room for tragedy or has intellectual integrity. It’s simply one more ranty verse in a “the world is shit” litany. The film looked as ugly as it felt — with the color recessive and grainy — and it probably was not a help that the audience was yukking it up throughout. Nothing is more alienating than seeing a movie with a big crowd that thinks it’s all SO funny when you don’t.
I watched PALINDROMES sitting next to a friend whom I call on my links to the right a “godless pinko.” Michael also hated the film (scroll down to 15 Sept.) and said as we left the theater, close as I can recall, “I felt insulted for you, Victor — that I was sitting next to a Christian who was being subjected to that film.” When a pro-life sniper who has attacked an abortionist’s home gets into a shootout with police, I saw Michael hit his head on the back of the (very comfortable stadium-theater) chair in frustration at the line “how many more times can I be born again.” To make me angry over the portrayal of an abortion-pusher and to get Waz angry over the portrayal of a Christian family and a pro-life murderer. That’s an achievement — I guess. What I will truly to my last breath hold against this film is that I thought Solondz’s earlier films were at least good, and I even named HAPPINESS best film of the year back in 1998. I’m now afraid to go back and look at that earlier work. So not only was PALINDROMES bad in itself, but it may have robbed my memory of a masterpiece — and that’s just unforgivable.