Volume 17 • Issue 23 | Oct. 29 - Nov. 4, 2004

Koch on Film

By Ed Koch

“Vera Drake” (+)
This understated English film set in the 1950s provides a first-rate viewing experience.

Vera (Imelda Staunton) works as a housekeeper for a number of families ranging from those of moderate circumstances to one upper-middle-class family. She works hard tidying up their homes and preparing their afternoon teas, but most important her warm smiles and comforting manner bring a sense of happiness into their homes.

We soon learn that Vera is an abortionist, when abortion was a criminal act in England even if performed by a physician. She uses the crudest instruments to perform the procedure, ranging from a household syringe and a cheese grater, which become exhibits in a criminal court proceeding, when she is arrested and tried for an abortion gone wrong.

The plot evolves in a very slow manner, but each step of the way it is filled with superb acting. Some of the characters in the film who give virtuoso performances are Vera’s husband, Stan (Phil Davis), who in his quiet manner supports her when she is arrested; Vera’s insufferable son Sid (Daniel Mays); Susan (Sally Hawkins) an upper-middle-class date-raped girl; Lily (Ruth Sheen) who for a fee recommends young girls to Vera who performs the abortions free of charge; and, Detective Inspector Webster (Peter Wight) the compassionate detective unraveling the facts leading to Vera’s indictment.

The movie illustrates the unfairness of how the wealthy in Britain could get permission for an abortion, if a psychiatrist testified that the woman was suicidal. The same exception existed in New York before the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision.

Back-room abortions also occurred in the United States before the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade. My mother, may she rest in peace, told her children of how she had had such abortions and how she feared for her life. This movie in a non-melodramatic, understated manner, brings home how far we have come in common decency by legalizing abortion and providing women with a basic right which had been denied them for so long. The moving story, acting and beautiful cinematography add up to a fine film.

“Stage Beauty” (+)
Compared with “Shakespeare in Love” this film is disappointing; nevertheless, it is entertaining.

During the reign of King Charles II, women were not allowed to perform on stage. Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is a leading stage actor who plays only female roles, and he certainly does a superb job of conveying a woman by gesture and voice. Maria (Claire Danes) wants to act on stage, and she is able to secure the king’s permission (Rupert Everett) to play the female roles. Indeed, the king bans males from performing female roles. How Ned and Maria ultimately perform together in Othello in their proper sexual roles makes up the balance of the story.

When limited to performing only male roles, Ned finds that he cannot portray them properly. Indeed, when he tries to engage in an act of love with Maria, he also performs inadequately. His male lover appears early on in the film, but that relationship changes and everything comes out squeaky clean.

Billy Crudup gives a fine performance, but Claire Danes’s leaves much to be desired, both in her role as Maria and when she portrays Desdemona on stage. While this is not a first-rate film, it is a cut above the ordinary so often served to us.

  - Ed Koch

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