Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Feminist movie review: Vera Drake

Sunday was a drizzly, gray sort of day, so I stopped by DC indie video store Potomac Video for a pick me up.

After much indecision, due to my insistence on finding movies with strong female leads, I settled on Vera Drake and Hitchcock's Notorious. If you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend Vera Drake as a solid feminist drama.

The film, starring Imelda Staunton, came out in 2004, but is still timely for its themes of illegal abortion and women in the criminal justice system. The film is set in London in 1950, and the title character is a woman who works as a domestic servant while serving as the glue of her close-knit family.

Vera also "helps young girls out" in secret when they need to end unwanted pregnancies. Her warm personality leads her to gently assist harried mothers, sanguine partygirls, foreign workers, rape survivors, and other young women.

My boyfriend remarked that the film normalized abortion, which was precisely what appealed to me. See also: largely positive review from Christianity Today, despite inaccuracies on the sanitation procedures Drake uses in the movie.

***Spoiler alert***

When one of her patients falls ill, local police identify Vera and arrest her. Although the detectives are sympathetic, including Woman Police Constable Best, you watch Vera's life crumble as she descends into the British justice system.

There is a constant tension between rich and working class, between men and women, and between the medical establishment and Vera's informal, unpaid services. There's lots I could write about, but two components of the movie interested me in particular:

1. The word abortion is not mentioned on the DVD case, and is not mentioned until the British police interrogate Vera. When they ask whether she performs abortions, Vera says, "That's your word for it." Only when they ask whether she has helped girls out does she respond in the affirmative.

Today, of course, we have "choice" as a euphemism for abortion, which has advantages and disadvantages.

2. The film highlights the importance of women in policing and the judicial system. WPC Best accompanies the detectives and gently reassures Vera and her friend Lillian Clark throughout questioning. Although she cannot help Vera, WPC Best guides Vera through the system and puts thought into Vera's comfort to the extent she can.

Vera's trial is heard by a male judge, who decides to make an example of her through a harsh sentence, despite her motivations and lack of a criminal record. It is clear a prison term could break the elderly Vera, but he is unsympathetic.

FMF's National Center for Women and Policing works with women in local and federal law enforcement to promote gender-responsive policing and work environments. But we still need more feminists in high levels of the criminal justice system.

Feminist judges understand that women need protections against abusive partners, that girls may need abortions without parental consent, that anti-abortion laws hurt women.

Vera Drake's reality is not far from our own - it is still the reality for billions of women around the world. Conservatives in the US are waging an all-out war on abortion rights, and we need you to keep working to protect women's lives.

Have you seen this movie? Comment and let us know what you think! Or arrange a film screening on your campus. Drop us a line at campusteam@feminist.org if you want ideas for the screening, and keep up the great work!

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