Vera Drake (UK, 2004) *** 1/2
Written & directed by Mike Leigh. Photography, Dick Pope. Editing, Jim Clark. Production designm Eve Stewart. Musisc, Andrew Dickson. Producers, Simn Channing & Alain Sarde, A Fine Line release. 125 minutes. Rated R. Cast: Imelda Staunton (Vera), Phil Davis (Stan), Peter Wight (Inspector Webster), Daniel Mays (Sid), Alex Kelly (Ethels), Eddie Marsan (Reg), Adrian Scarborough (Frank), Heather Craney (Joyce), Sally Hawkins (Susan), Ruth Sheen (Lily.)
Mike Leigh, a force in British cinema (as well as TV), is mostly associated with his working-class depictions, although he can go well beyond them—and as far as his “Topsy Turvy,” that immensely enjoyable period item about Gilbert and Sullivan.
“Vera Drake” is, at this writing, still on the festivals’ circuit. Interestingly, when its world premiere took place at the Venice Film Festival, it received both the best movie and the best actress (Imelda Staunton) top prizes. This may have been facilitated by the film’s screening with subtitles (whether French or Italian or both, I don’t know) since the average non-British mortal has some difficulty with Brit working-class accents.
The setting is London in 1950. Middle-aged Vera (happily married to garage mechanic Stan, and mother of two) is the embodiment of the Good Samaritan. She works for prosperous folk, as a house-cleaner yet finds time to do nice things for ailing persons (her mother, a neighbor) and such.
Some viewers call her “a domestic,” wrongly, since domestics are live-in servants, and Vera inhabits lovingly her own modest dwelling.
There’s a side of Vera that almost nobody knows. She performs abortions –or better yet, she sets abortions going --for –generally – women who can’t afford that luxury and/or must keep it secret. (Not to worry, there are no graphic moments in the film.) Abortions were against the law in England then, and until the Abortion Bill of 1967.
What sets Vera aside is that she did not practice her hidden craft for money but for kindness, to be of help to women in trouble. (Vera has a go-between, Lily, who does manage to get payments when possible, but kept them secret from Vera. Lily is the movie’s villain, so to speak.)
Throughout the film, the characters in Vera’s small world are beautifully, realistically, even mercilessly depicted, with nary a touch of romance or colorfulness. Imelda Staunton is incredibly good. Also, director Lee has a method of gathering his players for one-on-one as well as group meetings and shaping the films in an unusual way. The movie’s script gets slowly born by those who will play or work in it. He also has a gift for reconstructing periods, in this case, the 1950 England that is still suffering from the very recent war.
Vera keeps helping, blithely, as she has, as later revealed, for at least 20 years. What brings an end to the status quo is that Susan, an upper-class girl, becomes the victim of a date-rape, Vera is enlisted, something (we don’t know what) goes wrong, Susan is very seriously affected. She ends up in a hospital. Vera’s activities become known to the Police. And the authorities come for Vera.
At this point, Vera totally disintegrates, is stricken by mutism, falls apart in a hundred ways. The changes are so big, sudden and jarring that they slightly hurt the film. That’s partly compensated by a very humane conduct by the police Inspector and his female assistant, all in sequences that quietly honor the British constabulary. There is also a hint that Vera started all that over twenty years ago because –perhaps-- she had been a rape victim—or something like that – but it does not get explored.
What is made clear is the gap between the haves and the working classes, the former being able to get regular, safe medical help and abortions because they can afford them. Interestingly, Mr. Leigh does not take sides in the abortion issue, nor does he preach, not even covertly, anything.
What is of major interest however is that in its Internet site, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reviews this film at length, analyzes and praises it. Well worth reading.