Mike Says: Roe Is Me! Leigh’s Grim Tale, Vera Drake

Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, from his own screenplay, was reportedly released so close to the American election in order to influence its outcome in favor of the passionate defenders of Roe v. Wade against its passionate enemies. Certainly, there’s reason to believe that the re-election of George W. may eventually return us to the dark age of back-alley abortions. Yet, despite all Mr. Leigh’s good progressive intentions, Vera Drake is unlikely to change many (if any) minds on either side of the debate—even if the right-to-life crowd flocks to the comparatively few theaters showing the director’s heartfelt work on the subject. Indeed, Vera Drake unintentionally demonstrates the difficulty of defending abortion onscreen—a painful choice for women who, in many instances, have been defeated at a young age in their search for happiness. Abortion, like pregnancy itself, is a messy business to look at, in life and certainly onscreen.

When you add Mr. Leigh’s penchant for casting unglamorous, frightened young women who have gotten into “trouble” with a hypocritically censorious society, it makes it all that much more difficult for an entertainment-seeking audience to bear. Never mind that all the current prattling about abstinence as a viable strategy for sex education has proven to be ridiculously unrealistic, especially when combined with a hostility to any form of contraception to forestall not only unwanted pregnancies, but also the spread of H.I.V. That the film’s set during the relatively unenlightened period of post–World War II Britain doesn’t lessen the impact of seeing primitively induced miscarriages as spectacles of pain and suffering. In movies, unfortunately, one visceral image is worth a thousand cerebral words.

Still, despite all the rave reviews that Vera Drake has received from my colleagues—with special praise for Imelda Staunton’s performance in the title role as the warmhearted neighborhood abortionist—I found myself becoming increasingly restive with both the film and Ms. Staunton’s performance. On both counts, I felt that I was being set up for an outrageous dénouement with the authorities. Perhaps I’ve seen too many media circuses in which a pathetically blubbering old lady is guaranteed to be treated leniently. But this is here and now, and that was there and then, with hanging judges and no mention of one’s Miranda rights.

Mr. Leigh’s heart has always been in the right place as regards the eternal class struggle, but I found his most prized works— High Hopes (1988), Life Is Sweet (1990), Naked (1993), Secrets and Lies (1996) and Career Girls (1997)—to be creatively improvisational, but drastically flattened out by his class-frozen portraiture. I frankly preferred to get my share of British working-class guilt-tripping from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), Kes (1969), Riff-Raff (1990), Raining Stones (1993) and Ladybird Ladybird (1994).

It quite possibly says more about me than about Mr. Leigh that the only film of his that I have fully enjoyed has been Topsy-Turvy (1999), a reconstruction of a Gilbert & Sullivan world in which the director’s numbing class-consciousness was not so much front and center. Mr. Leigh is a prodigious artist, but too often he has left me feeling trapped in his realistically claustrophobic creations, and I happen to have always gone to the movies to breathe more freely, not less.

In Vera Drake, Mr. Leigh stages one of the ugliest date-rape scenes in memory, simply to present a medically sanctioned abortion for an upper-class woman; this is set up to highlight the economic injustice meted out to Vera’s lower-class clients. But Mr. Leigh’s weakness for grotesquerie reaches a danger point for me in the unappealing, slow-motion, almost retarded courtship of Vera’s ugly-duckling daughter, Ethel (Alex Kelly), with the local bachelor, Reg (Eddie Marsan).

Where Mr. Leigh goes overboard in class caricature is with Vera’s tailor son, Sid (Daniel Mays), who’s shown in a ghastly anti-nostalgic 50’s dance hall full of not-very-prepossessing young men and women jumping about to mildly Yank-influenced, brassy swing music. Later, Sid is at his pushiest as the only family member to scold his mother for disgracing the family. This despite the heartwarming support that Stan (Phil Davis), Vera’s mechanic husband, gives her in her hour of need.

One of Mr. Leigh’s more acerbic notes is struck by one of his regulars, Ruth Sheen, who, as the cynically manipulative Lily, steers frightened, unmarried, pregnant women to Vera, pockets the fees they pay and fobs off on Vera many of the black-market items she peddles on the side. In the end, Lily betrays Vera to the authorities after one of the young women nearly dies from the procedure.

Mr. Leigh is too realistic a filmmaker to have his characters indulge in anachronistic agitprop speeches; instead, we are supposedly left to fill in the dots for ourselves. All we’re really left with is the shame-filled spectacle of an old woman unable to cope with the burden placed on her by the coldly indifferent police and courts. Boo, hiss and all that—but I can report that the film left me only vaguely depressed and nothing more. In the final analysis, Vera has regressed from saintly cheer and generosity in helping others to a shame-filled puddle of tears pouring into the vast sea of despond, an uncomprehending woman full of doubt and despair who sinks without a trace. It certainly ain’t Aristotle.

Israeli Film Fest Highlights

The Israel Film Festival has just celebrated 20 years of showing the best in Israeli cinema in New York with an opening-night gala on Oct. 14, where award presentations were given to Matthew C. Blank, Martin Richards, Bob Balaban and Avi Nesher, the writer-director of Turn Left at the End of the World, the opening-night film. The festival screened 36 new Israeli films all in all, of which I’ve seen only Mr. Nesher’s and the closing-night film, Eran Riklis’ The Syrian Bride. Both films deserve a regular run on the local art-house circuit, but I never cease wondering why even good Israeli films have such tough sledding in a city with such a large Jewish population, a city in which Iranian films are infinitely more fashionable among the local intelligentsia. Don’t get me wrong: I like good Iranian films as much as anyone, but I’m always aware, even among the best of them, of the restrictions involved in the treatment of sensitive subjects. As far as I can see, there are no such restrictions in Israeli cinema—which, of course, is not a guarantee of artistic quality. Still, the best Israeli films deserve a chance to be seen.

Turn Left at the End of the World takes a somewhat comic view of a provincial Israeli backwater village populated largely by Jewish immigrants from India and Morocco, who have not found Israel to be the land of Golden Opportunity promised them by the various agencies of the Sharon government. There is no mincing of words in the charges of betrayal directed at the government.

One of the comic subtexts of the movie is the degree of Francophilia among the Moroccan Jews. The Moroccan housewives swear by French-made soap as fervently as the Indian Jews swear by English-made soap. But the most spectacular manifestation of Indian-Jewish Anglophilia is their fanatical devotion to cricket, a sport with which few, if any, Israelis have previously been acquainted.

When the town’s underpaid workers at the bottling plant go on strike, they expect the Sharon government to put pressure on the owners to settle the strike quickly. When the government fails to intervene, both the Indian and Moroccan immigrants become even more disillusioned. The film is so clearly on the side of the strikers that one tries to recall the last Hollywood film to take up the cause of striking workers against a corporation. All I came up with off the top of my head is Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae, made in 1979.

The central story deals with the friendship of two high-school girls, the sultry Moroccan, Nicol, and the brainy Indian, Sara. The friendship survives Nicol’s sexual affair with her charismatic high-school teacher, and the adulterous relationship between Sara’s father and a provocative Moroccan widow. Both girls seek to escape to the outside world by joining the army, but in the end the sudden death of Nicol’s mother forces her to stay behind to take care of her family while Sara goes off alone on the bus to a new life.

Many of the actors in this film were non-Israelis from India and Africa, and there is a rueful observation by Nicol’s father that in Morocco they were insulted as Jews, and in Israel for the darker color of their skin. Even so, Turn Left at the End of the World was the year’s biggest box-office hit in Israel.

The Syrian Bride is even more unusual in that its major characters are not Israeli at all, but Druze villagers in the Golan Heights, an area under dispute between Israel and Syria. The action takes place on Mona’s wedding day, which is also the saddest day of her life because, once she crosses the border between Israel and Syria to marry a Syrian TV star, she will never be allowed back among her beloved family in the largest Druze village in the Golan Heights.

The many subplots of the film reveal deep fissures within the bride’s family—between parents and children, males and females, the old ways and the new ways—all snarled up in the red tape separating Israel from Syria and its consequences on the day of the wedding. The film ends with a feeling of tolerance and understanding, exemplified by the triumphant images of two women (the bride and her married sister), both seizing their destiny and following it from their past into a more hopeful future. In this, the two Israeli films resemble the best Iranian films by zeroing in on the lives and rights of women in the context of their traditionally patriarchal societies.

Body Double

Catherine Breillat is raising the libidinous level of the local movie scene with her two most recent forays into cinematic sexology, Sex Is Comedy at Film Forum and Anatomy of Hell at the Angelika Film Center. Both films tend to be more meditations on the subject of sex than full-blown erotic narratives. This is to say that there’s a degree of self-consciousness in the two films that forces the voyeur in us to feel manipulated by the director for some experiment we’d rather not experience. Of the two films, Sex Is Comedy is more comedy than sex, while Anatomy of Hell is more anatomical than dynamically erotic.

Sex Is Comedy purports to dramatize Ms. Breillat’s shooting of a pivotal sex scene in her 2001 hit erotic drama, Fat Girl. Roxane Mesquida reprises her non-title role in Fat Girl, but her onscreen lover here is played by Gregoire Colin, who was not in the original scene. The central problem of the film boils down to the ability of the director (played by Anne Parillaud and best known in America for Luc Besson’s 1990 La Femme Nikita) to persuade both actors to take off all their clothes for the scene. That is about all there is to the plot, and I found it somewhat hard to believe. Still, there are insightful moments about the delicate relationships between a director and her cast, and about the mind games that go on both behind the camera and in front of it. Some of the biggest laughs in Sex Is Comedy are generated by a prosthetic penis that prevents soft-core from becoming hard-core.

By contrast, Anatomy of Hell features wall-to-wall female nudity (provided by former Chanel model Amira Casar) in the course of four nights involving a suicidal woman rescued by a homosexual (played by Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi). Much time is spent with the clothed and detached homosexual gazing at and eventually exploring the woman’s vagina. It is in many ways a war between affinity and revulsion. In a remarkable foreword to the film, we are told that the vagina shown in the film is not that of the actress, but of a double hired for the shots. Between the prosthetic penis in one flick and the dubbed vagina in the other, Ms. Breillat seems intent on demystifying the entire genre.