Produced by Thin Man Films and Studio Canal
Written and directed by Mike Leigh
Distributed by New Line Cinema
Produced and distributed by Fine Line Features
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière and Milo Addica
Mike Leigh, one of Britain’s socialist directors, begins and ends his latest effort, Vera Drake, with plangent harp strings backed by a keening choir. It is music orchestrated to canonize his title character, who is, in a very modern sense of an old-fashioned word, a saint.
We first meet the eponymous Vera hurrying through the low-rent council-housing streets of 1950 London. After a long day’s labor, she is eager to get home. She talks and sings to herself with that bustling cheer one notices in the truly selfless. This woman has never dreamt of complaining about her lot in life. Through sheer goodwill, she has transformed the cramped four-room apartment she shares with her husband and their two grown children into a cozy wonder of domestic felicity. She supplements her husband’s modest income by cleaning the homes of the wealthy, and she somehow manages also to tend to the needs of many others—her apartment-bound mum, an invalid neighbor, a young veteran down on his luck. What’s more, this angel of mercy has time to help seemingly numberless young women suffering from that all-too-common malady, the inconvenient pregnancy. More than a good neighbor, Vera is a principled abortionist at a time when terminating pregnancies is punishable by law. She is willing to kill anyone’s baby with her preparation of carbolic acid administered by rubber tube and syringe, no questions asked. Abandoned girls, careless adulteresses, overburdened mothers, playgirls—they are all one to Vera: They are all “girls in trouble.” Vera’s commitment is admirably disinterested. After more than 20 years in her trade, she has never taken so much as a ha’pence for her services. She is, in short, Saint Aborta. By the end of the film, of course, she will be martyred for her corporal works of mercy.
A little math will give you an idea of Vera’s dedication. The film takes place between October and Christmas. During this span, we watch Vera perform six abortions. Well, we do not exactly watch; Leigh is ever so careful not to show us any blood, mucus, or other biological debris. He does not want to upset us in quite that way. Political provocation is his game; he has avoided any visuals that might elicit our instinctive horror at abortion’s residue. It would not do to distract his audience from the lesson at hand.
Back to the math. At this frequency, Vera would perform 24 abortions a year. That is 480 across the 20 years that she has been at it. Not nearly so brisk a rate as today’s abortion mills, of course, but it indicates what an ordinary woman could accomplish in the benighted past before medical abortions were made legal. And imagine this: During her career, Vera has never known one of her girls to suffer untoward consequences—except for her last patient, the one whose troubles finally alert the authorities. Of course, this may have to do with how her procedures are scheduled. She never knows the identity of her “patients,” nor do they know hers. It’s all brokered by Vera’s friend, Lily. Vera meets these women at their homes, where she first consoles them over a nice cup of tea and then boils a pot of water into which she shaves a bar of carbolic soap. She then introduces the solution into each woman’s uterus with her syringe and rubber tube, reassuring them all the while. “Now, just lie back and go all floppy for me, dear, and tell me when you feel full down there.” The procedure done, she gathers her tools and tells the woman to expect some discomfort in a day or two. “Just get yourself to a toilet. It will come away, and you’ll be right as rain.” Really? Having an abortion in this way, even in the early stages of a pregnancy, is neither easy nor safe. A woman’s body is well designed to protect a healthy fetus. Killing an unborn child requires extreme measures, after which the woman must go through all the rigors of labor. Since most of Vera’s clients would be doing so on their own, out of sight of parents, lovers, or husbands, one must wonder how “right as rain” they would be feeling during and after. It is one thing to experience labor as a necessary trial in the cause of life; it is quite something else to undergo it in the cause of death. Furthermore, given Vera’s limited acquaintance with antisepsis, there is always the risk of infection to contend with.
To the “right-as-rain” implausibility, Leigh adds some others. Vera and her husband—who knows nothing of her illegal practice—are members of the poor-but-honest working class. They are just scraping by in postwar, heavily rationed London. Would such a woman not seek payment for her services, not even bus or tube fare? Would she have never caught on to her “friend” Lily, who has been charging five pounds for each referral? Of all the women who have passed through Vera’s hands, wouldn’t one or another have dropped a hint concerning Lily’s fee? As played by the gifted Imelda Staunton, Vera is a simple person, but not at all simpleminded. Leigh, however, is so determined to have us venerate his Saint Aborta that he is willing to burst the envelope of verisimilitude. And, then, just as you are thinking to yourself that Leigh wouldn’t dare to pile it any higher, he shoves Vera’s arrest on us. Of all the anonymous girls whom Vera has “helped,” the one who suffers complications is the daughter of an acquaintance. When the mother is forced to take her daughter to the hospital, the police are called in, and she soon exposes Vera as the person responsible for the girl’s near demise. Shortly afterward, the authorities come knocking on the Drakes’ door. As fate would have it, they arrive just as Vera’s entire family is gathered to celebrate her daughter’s engagement and her sister-in-law’s pregnancy.
You wouldn’t think such a ghastly soap opera would succeed with the critics, but it has, splendidly so. The accolades have gushed unstoppably from mainstream reviewers: “Stunningly real”; “authentic”; “heartbreaking”; “gripping.” The tribute I admire most comes from the redoubtable Roger Ebert, who judges the film “pitch-perfect,” to which I say, amen. It is a “perfect” example of the weirdly self-assured pro-abortion propaganda that is now standard in our transatlantic discourse, and it is unquestionably as foul as “pitch.”
Leigh’s intent, of course, is to dramatize abortion-on-demand as a inalienable right. As much as he admires Vera, he also wants to make it clear that we should not have to rely on such saintly intervention. Abortion should be guaranteed and funded by the state. Since this has been the case in England since 1967, I wondered why he felt compelled to make the film at all. The answer came when Leigh appeared on CNBC’s Topic [A] With Tina Brown. Leigh confided to Tina that he had timed the film to open just before the American election, hoping to help the pro-abortion John Kerry win. To think that a British film director should be so solicitous of our right to kill infants! It’s enough to make you question the wisdom of our Revolution.
The enthusiastic response to Vera Drake serves as a moral barometer of our times. Imagine a pro-life drama exhibiting a fraction of the sentimentality Leigh has contrived. Howls of derision would deafen its reception on opening day. It would be excoriated as a public peril. This is where we are. Forty years ago, abortion was a word either whispered discreetly or spat contemptuously. Today, it is invoked as a label of honor.
If you want to see a film that deals with this issue with unusual honesty, not to mention piercingly satiric humor, search out Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth on DVD. Payne is not an absolutist. He ridicules zealotry on both sides of the argument, but he heaps special scorn on the pro-abortionists.
Jonathan Glazer’s Birth reveals the other side of Leigh’s coin. If unborn infants are expendable, it follows that we need not concern ourselves unduly with protecting other children.
Birth is a pointlessly perverse film, both morally and aesthetically. This is not surprising, since one of its writers is the sly, amoral provocateur Jean-Claude Carrière, who collaborated with Luis Bunuel on such films as Belle du Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Several critics consider Carrière’s involvement as warrant to take Birth seriously. I would argue to the contrary. Carrière is nothing more than a twittering nihilist who takes his pleasure in trying to disturb his long-time enemy, the bourgeoisie, who, in their turn, have repaid his insults handsomely by attending his films in large and adoring numbers, thinking themselves awfully sophisticated for doing so.
I do not think Birth will garner such doggy adulation, however. The narrative is a compilation of half-baked ideas revolving around the tired conceit of reincarnation. Anna (Nicole Kidman) is a fabulously wealthy 35-year-old widow whose husband, Sean, died ten years earlier. We meet her just as she has surrendered to Joseph (Danny Huston), a suitor importunate enough to have wooed her for the last three years. Then, on the evening of their engagement party, a preternaturally solemn ten-year-old boy, also named Sean (Cameron Bright), slips into Anna’s Manhattan apartment uninvited to inform her that he is her Sean reborn and that she must not marry Joseph. Shocked at first, Anna soon sends the kid on his way, laughing with her sister over his weird intrusion. Young Sean keeps coming back, however, revealing an uncannily detailed knowledge of Anna’s life with her husband. He can even report their most intimate moments, such as the night they “did it on the couch.” With no rational explanation for his knowledge, Anna starts to accept his paranormal claim that he is her husband reborn.
From here, things go willfully—or perhaps lazily—awry. When Sean sneaks into Anna’s bathroom one evening, takes off his clothing, and slips into the tub with her, the film violates its aesthetic contract with its audience irreparably. Confronted by the spectacle of a ten-year-old boy sitting opposite the naked Kidman, you cannot help stepping outside the narrative’s imaginative construct to raise real-world questions. How did shooting this scene affect Bright? Would Glazer have been so reckless had his actress been someone exhibiting more emphatically developed secondary sexual characteristics than those of the boyish Kidman—say, Catherine Zeta-Jones? What if the sexes had been reversed? Say it was a grieving widower encountering in his tub his reincarnated wife in the body of a ten-year-old girl? The scene as shot comes within a hair’s breadth of pedophilia. When, after a long pause, Kidman’s Anna somewhat reluctantly orders the boy from her tub, you know the limits of the acceptable are being flouted. What comes next? Fourth-grade instruction in the art of foreplay, or is this already established in our national curriculum?
Leaving the tub, the film begins to drip with cynically managed plot turns. It reaches a soggily queasy nadir when Anna asks young Sean how he proposes to meet her “needs” should they set up house together. Bright looks up from the ice-cream soda Anna has bought him and replies, “I know what you’re talking about.” Indeed. Then the supernatural conceit is dropped altogether and replaced with a wholly improbable “realistic” explanation for the boy’s behavior. This means, of course, he has no relation to her dead husband. You could laugh at such trash if the spectacle of adults compromising the moral and psychological welfare of a young boy did not forbid such relief.
The only reason to take notice of this film is its casual, careless decadence. Bright’s parents should seek counseling, preferably from a behind-the-times clergyman. For Glazer and Carrière, horsewhipping would be an act of mercy.