The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

January 23rd, 2005

Vera, a distorted picture for our shallow society

Popular taste is a good guide to the temper of the times, much more so than highbrow high culture. You can tell much more about how most people felt and what their assumptions were from John Buchan or Agatha Christie or Ian Fleming than from reading what were seen then and since as the best novels of the time.

It is precisely because popular works seem so dated later on that they have something to reveal of their time. Other greater works which have a more universal, timeless quality tell us less about the date in question.

For instance, the thoughtless anti-semitism of both Buchan and Christie, revealed in minor throwaway remarks that were common at the time, is something you will seldom find as an assumption in more intellectual and serious contemporary writers.
Big box office movies of the past unselfconsciously reveal sociological volumes about the status of women through the anachronistic make-up of the female stars alone. What sells in the mass market is revealing.

So what, I have been asking myself glumly, is revealed about the temper of our times by the outstanding popular success of Mike Leigh’s new film, Vera Drake? I can hardly remember a more dazzling reception for a film or a more impassioned mass outburst of respect and affection, with important industry awards and nominations and rave reviews everywhere. I myself was eager to see it since, like millions of other people, I think Leigh at his best is something of a national treasure.

This film is a mass popular triumph but it is also a succès d’estime — perhaps the French phrase will point up its more critical, arty cineaste success. Although there have been a few voices of dissent it has wowed both the critics and the glitterati. But how depressing it all is.

For if the triumph of Vera Drake is any guide to feeling and taste today, then we are living in a time of mass sentimentality, mental laziness and class hatred. I simply cannot understand why people have not recoiled at the film’s obvious dishonesty.

Most obvious of all perhaps is the class stereotyping. All the heart-warmingly good and decent people in the film, like Vera Drake herself, are working-class and unfailingly salt-of-the-earth. The audience is allowed no other response to these powerful performances. The single exceptions (apart from the wicked spiv who finds the girls) are the only two working-class characters who show any signs of aspiration or youth.

The young aspirational wife, Vera’s sister-in-law who wants to better herself, is a selfish monster. The only other person who turns away from poor Vera at her time of trial is her own young, faintly aspirational son who works in gents’ outfitting. Fortunately in his case (as he is decent Vera’s decent enough boy), the constant cup of tea soon brings him back down to his place amid the stoical, inarticulate, loveable working-class sorts who know their unaspirational place and have the right values.

By contrast to these working-class heroes and heroines, the upper-middle-class characters are all stereotypically heartless and repellent with mean spirits, locked jaws and nothing whatsoever to recommend them or to arouse any response in the viewer apart from contempt. The only exception (apart perhaps from a kindly society doctor) is a posh girl who is ignored and patronised by her chilly mother and date-raped by a Hooray Henry monster. She is therefore a victim and thereby relieved of much of her class guilt and no longer hateful, although still contemptibly repressed like all the other toffs.

One could say that there is nothing wrong with stereotypes in a work of art. Bourgeois realism is not compulsory in creative fiction. Think of fairy tales, morality tales, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens. However, Leigh does not claim that excuse. In a recent interview he said: “Actually the last thing my characters are is stereotypes because they are far too idiosyncratic, like we all are, to be able to qualify in a million years as stereotypes.” Well, he said it.

If Leigh himself and his many admirers and his huge audience cannot see that his characters in Vera Drake are the most hog-whimperingly two-dimensional stereotypes, then there is something wrong with him and them and popular culture generally.

Alternatively (leaving aside Leigh’s personal baggage) it must be that the great British public, along with its supposed intellectual leaders, prefers easy, lazy, feelgood stereotypes to an artistic and intellectual challenge.

In many ways this film was wonderful. The direction is irresistibly lush and many of the images and sequences are unforgettable. There is something unmistakably authentic about all the period detail and the performances are quite impeccable.

For years we have been spoilt in this country with an astonishingly high standard of acting and every performance in this film is truly excellent. The many awards coming the way of this dazzling cast are thoroughly well deserved. However, intellectually speaking, the film reaches a depressing low in the lowest common denominator of contemporary British feelgood mindlessness.

The film’s tendentiousness, although perhaps not cynical, simply serves that uncritical feely-touchiness. Vera Drake is a back-street abortionist in 1950 whose only motive is to help girls in trouble and who is horribly shamed and punished for her kindness.

There is nothing wrong with that as a plausible plot. Of course there were greedy and heartless people who performed dangerous abortions only for money, but it is also true that some kind women wanted to protect pregnant girls from disgrace and misery and took terrible personal risks to do so.

However, this film presents such a sanitised version of amateur abortion that it is in effect powerful fodder for the anti-abortion lobby. A realistic portrayal of a back-street abortion would have been more artistically truthful and in the process made the case for legalising it.
Leigh claims to be interested in lies. Here he has effectively promoted several. The truth is that abortions like the ones so gently done by the saintly Vera would have been extremely painful and dangerous. It is unthinkable that there would have been no screams at the time and no horrible deaths and infections during her 20-year mission of mercy or that she would not have known.

The truth is that nobody taking such awful risks could have preserved Vera Drake’s relentless good cheer and confident respectability. The truth is that a hard-pressed, hard-up working-class family like hers could not have been so relentlessly saintly — no family could. The truth is that the interest of such a story lies in its complexity, of which this film almost entirely robs it.

A great artist would have risen above all this extreme oversimplification to tell wider, interesting truths. What Leigh offers is a combination of superficial nicey nicey, with a nasty underlying confirmation of outdated class prejudice. Shallow thinking and shallow feeling — that is popular culture in our time, it seems.