Facing the facts of life

Mike Leigh's new film tackles the issue of abortion. It's a subject we should see more often, argues Charlotte O'Sullivan
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The Independent Culture

In Mike Leigh's new movie, Vera Drake, the eponymous heroine is a working-class wife and mother selflessly devoted to helping women. She's an abortionist. And if religious groups don't take offence when Vera Drake opens the London Film Festival, then jeez, maybe the Pope isn't Catholic. Will anyone else, though, really be shocked?

In Mike Leigh's new movie, Vera Drake, the eponymous heroine is a working-class wife and mother selflessly devoted to helping women. She's an abortionist. And if religious groups don't take offence when Vera Drake opens the London Film Festival, then jeez, maybe the Pope isn't Catholic. Will anyone else, though, really be shocked?

Once upon a blinkered time, even the most liberal of scripts wouldn't have dared to drum up sympathy for such a figure. It was dangerous enough to show the woman who was having the abortion as human. Thus in 1965's Alfie (a film turned down by Laurence Harvey, James Booth and Anthony Newley, because they didn't want to be associated with a film containing an abortion scene), Vivien Merchant's careworn housewife, Lily - caught out by her one-afternoon stand with Michael Caine's arrogant charmer - is the one we feel for, her face pulverised by shock as she leaves his pad after an illegal, botched job. The abortionist has a coat wet with grease and a smile moist with contempt - silly cow, his expression seems to say, you brought this on yourself.

How things have changed. In 2000, Caine won an Oscar for his turn in The Cider House Rules - as a man who runs a very special orphanage, where women can either hand over their unwanted child, or have it vacuumed away. Eccentric, lovable Dr Larch (based on a character from John Irving's bestselling novel) is positively zealous in converting those around him. At first young orphan Homer (Tobey Maguire) raises objections. But then he, too, sees the light, and decides to carry on Larch's good work. Christian critics went into a tailspin - it was called an "exercise in neo-Nazi propaganda". Nevertheless, audiences poured in. The film cost $24m to make and grossed more than $57m.

Paul Newman was the first choice for Larch, but he turned it down. "There are so many scenes at the incinerator," he confided later. "That incinerator really gets to me." Cider House Rules is a glossy product, but it still wasn't sanitised enough for our Paul.

Newman (and Laurence Harvey et al) would no doubt approve of the new, 2004 version of Alfie, starring Jude Law. This time around, the setting is modern-day New York, and Alfie takes the married woman he's made pregnant to a clinic. She insists he waits outside, and soon afterwards disappears with her husband to the country, only to reappear at the end of the film. And the twist is - she kept the baby! And her husband - even though he knows the baby isn't his - stands by her! (Naturally, he's a bit cross with Alfie - but hey, these things happen).

A few years ago, Demi Moore and Cher collaborated on a project - If These Walls Could Talk - in which Cher plays a present-day gynaecologist who performs abortions, and finds her clinic besieged by right-to-life protesters. (The film aired solely on TV channel HBO). Screening the film to executives, Cher and Demi were told that the noise of the suction machine was too loud. "That sound is traumatic," replied Cher. "We wanted it to be loud."

One of the problems, perhaps, is that liberals, just as much as conservatives, have trouble accepting women (even temporarily) as non-maternal. We live in a world where cutting-edge directors such as Pedro Almodovar regularly sling in a pregnancy/ birth at the end of the movie to signal a new start, fresh hope, etc. ( All About My Mother; Live Flesh; Talk To Her, to name but three).

Think, too, of recent, attempts to subvert macho thrillers. It's taken a great deal of time for us to warm to action heroines - females who can spill blood as efficiently as the fellas - but when we do, they're invariably mother figures. Sigourney Weaver in the Alien series, Linda Hamilton in Terminator, Jodie Foster in Panic Room or Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. In each case, the heroine's instinct is to protect the child who has emerged from her insides.

Much harder to imagine an action movie where the woman takes revenge on a man who forced her to keep a child she didn't want.True, a few jagged gems already exist - radical visions concerning a woman's (and man's) right to choose, that managed to pass uncut into the mainstream. Take David Fincher's 1995 crime thriller Seven, which boasts a hero (Morgan Freeman's detective Lt William Somerset) who freely admits he encouraged his girlfriend to have an abortion. We expect some sort of transformation by the end - a character arc that has him embracing life, whatever the cost - but no, he sticks by his beliefs.

For his next movie, Fincher came up with more jolts. The plan for Fight Club: Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), telling the man of her dreams, "I want to have your abortion." This time, though, the producers balked, and the line was ditched. Such contrived nihilism may not be to everybody's taste but it's the thought that counts. Why not flippancy, just for a change?

That a film like Vera Drake can be made, distributed and talked up as an Oscar contender is a triumph - a sign that the evangelical right can't always get what it wants. In so many ways, however, Vera Drake sounds like something we've seen before. Like Dr Larch, Vera exists safely in the past. Like Larch, she's ultimately a victim (it's the tragic consequences for her family - when her job is made public - that take up most of the film). Sentiment and heroism are fine and dandy, but we need a greater variety of "plots" when it comes to this subject. Forty-three per cent of US women will end at least one pregnancy by the age of 45. In the UK, roughly 25 per cent of all conceptions lead to abortion. Wouldn't it be good to see more of these messy/ mundane/ugly/beautiful realities up on screen?

'Vera Drake' opens the London Film Festival on 20 October, and goes on general release on 7 January; 'Alfie' goes on release on 22 October

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