Pin It
Submit to Reddit

Past As Present 

Mike Leigh and the improvisation of film art

Many of Mike Leigh's comic melodramas seem to take the political and social pulse of England during the period when they are made. In High Hopes and Life is Sweet, he rendered with the freshness of a newspaper headline the social despondency of Thatcher's England, and in Secrets and Lies, he uncovered the racial tensions in modern Britain. While his new film, Vera Drake, a tragedy about a good woman who is arrested for performing illegal abortions, takes place in 1950, it too feels bracingly contemporary. It's not the time nor place that ring familiar here but rather the story of decent folk trapped by historical conditions that feels so eerily current.

Although Vera (Imelda Staunton) and her family -- husband Stan (Phil Davis) and two grown children, Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly) -- are living during the impoverished 1950s, they remain unflinchingly optimistic: the war is behind them; they are all gainfully employed; friends and neighbors are willing to lend a helping hand, even if, in this case, it means administering makeshift abortions. Vera is, of course, aware of the criminal consequences of her actions and thus keeps it from her family. But her motives are purely civic and neighborly, not unlike her habit of making tea for sick friends or arranging a date for a lonely young man. When her world comes crashing down in the form of a police investigation, the real tragedy, as everyone around her knows, is that Vera is neither a criminal nor an enemy of the people. She is a victim of circumstances, of two systems -- one historical and legal, the other organic and community-based -- in conflict with each other, and for which no person, or political entity, is available to rectify.

In many ways, Leigh's films themselves reflect a similar tension between the general and the specific, the historic and the individual. Overtly political, his films contain characters who often seem stand-ins for a particular political demographic -- the working-class man, the upwardly mobile professional, the social elite, the slacker, etc. Yet his method of improvisation hones and refines each character into a wholly original, three-dimensional individual. As such, Vera Drake emerges as both a tragedy of an individual woman and a portrait of an ongoing social issue.

Peter Bowen: Your films consistently reflect social reality, but rarely have they focused on a single issue, like abortion.

Mike Leigh: Actually, if you troll back through my work, you will find abortion and abortion-related issues in a lot of my films. It is part of the general business of living and dying -- of having children or not having them, and the need to have them or not have them -- which informs all of my films if you think about it.

Was this a personal issue for you?

I have never directly been involved in abortion, in the sense that I have never caused a pregnancy that needed to be terminated. But plenty of people I know have, and I am old enough to have experienced the problems of people in those situations before the laws were changed in England and Wales in 1967. On top of that, I remember when I was growing up knowing women who -- well, you know what they did, and I knew some of them had gone to prison for it.

You set the story in the period after World War II. Was that period special for you?

It was a period I absolutely lived through. I was seven in 1950 and I wanted to do a film in that postwar period in which I was a kid. I think that postwar Britain was at once a very familiar world and a very alien one. The fact is that there was a kind of innocence then. My generation, the generation of The Beatles, rejected the squeaky clean 1950s in which we grew up. Now I can see that world with understanding and sympathy, and not with 1960s teenage anger. After the war, the culture was returning to respectability, and cleanness and honesty. And somehow that innocence seemed appropriate for dealing with the situation in the film.

Your father was a doctor.

Yes, my father was a doctor and my mother was a midwife, and I would have loved to have talked to my father when I was making the film last year. But he died in 1985. He had a working-class practice, and would have had to deal with the issue of pregnancy.

What exactly were the politics of reproductive rights in the 1950s?

Throughout the film, characters refer to the Offense Against the Person Act of 1861, which made abortion illegal. There was an amendment with The Bourne Case in 1938, which allowed for psychological exemptions. It had to do with a doctor who performed an illegal abortion on a woman who had been raped by soldiers in the barracks around Buckingham Palace.

Pin It
Submit to Reddit


More »

Search Events

© 2019 Womack Digital, LLC
Powered by Foundation