Vera Drake

Vera Drake

*****

Reviewed by: The Exile

Mike Leigh often relies on caricatures to explore painful social problems. The morbidly hostile Nicola of 1990's Life Is Sweet hides a daily battle with bulimia, while the scabrous Johnny of 1993's Naked - until now, Leigh's sole masterpiece - is a raging outcast with neither friends nor home. But there's nothing extreme or exaggerated about the eponymous heroine of Vera Drake; a plump and pragmatic wife and mother, Vera (magnificently played by Imelda Staunton) cleans the homes of wealthy women and works part time in a light bulb factory. On the side, she performs illegal abortions.

Set in Fifties London, still pinched by rationing and the after-effects of the Blitz, Vera Drake is neither an overly sensitive "issues" film, nor a pro-choice polemic. Like all of Leigh's movies, it's about families and how they cope with profoundly troubling events, whether the outing of a long-buried secret (Secrets And Lies), or the agony of mid-life marital breakdown (All Or Nothing).

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Vera is one of those women who used to be everywhere during my own Scottish childhood: always cheery, always in motion, dispensing kind words and cups of tea right and left. We meet her on a typical day, bustling between jobs and the bedside of her crotchety old mum (Sandra Voe), before heading home to husband Stan (the great Phil Davis) and her two grown children - Sid (Daniel Mays), a cocky tailor's apprentice, and Ethel (Alex Kelly), a scrunched ball of shyness, who works in the factory alongside Vera.

Once again, the power of Leigh's films derives primarily from his obsessive attention to detail. The cramped tenement homes with their drab, flocked wallpaper and overstuffed sofas, the black market sugar and washed-out floral aprons evoke a world so real you can almost smell the damp. When Vera goes, as she calls it, "to help girls out," her instruments - syringe, lye soap, cheese grater - are carried in an old cake tin. To Vera, these visits are simply an extension of the neighbourly charity she has practiced all her life. The young, unfaithful wife whose husband is in Korea, the poor woman with seven kids and a husband who thinks contraception is a sin, are all the same to Vera, who takes no payment and gives each the same advice: "A nice cup of tea and you'll be right as rain."

Vera Drake is about the isolation of women, faced with a law applicable only to the poor - a sub-plot follows the hygienic, psychiatrist-approved, 100-guinea abortion of a wealthy victim of date rape. Men hover on the fringes, muffled voices in adjoining rooms, while Vera takes care of their wives, or representatives of officialdom, like the police inspector who finally arrests her (a wonderfully humane performance from Peter Wight). The arrest, which takes place during a family celebration, is the movie's most wrenching sequence; as Vera confesses to Stan, Leigh focuses not on words but on the actors' faces and the small, comforting gestures that sustain a long-term marriage.

Leigh, who dedicated the film to his doctor father and midwife mother, was only seven in 1950. "But I was a very observant seven-year-old," he told me recently. "I knew what was going on." Growing up in Glasgow before the 1967 Abortion Act, my friends and I all knew where the local Vera lived, though we were much too young to need her. While Leigh doesn't balk from showing the mendaciousness of the friend (Ruth Sheen), who secretly charges for a referral to Vera, or the bewildered fury of Vera's infertile sister-in-law (Heather Craney), his sympathies are clear.

In America, where the issue is far from settled and stories about abortion are regularly avoided by both movies and television, we can only hope their Veras remain as antiquated and unnecessary as rationing itself.

Reviewed on: 07 Jan 2005
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Vera Drake packshot
A cleaning lady performs abortions on the side in Fifties London.
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Read more Vera Drake reviews:

Jennie Kermode ****1/2
Andrea Mullaney ****
David Haviland ****

Director: Mike Leigh

Writer: Mike Leigh

Starring: Imelda Staunton, Richard Graham, Eddie Marsan, Anna Keaveney, Alex Kelly, Daniel Mays, Philip Davis, Lesley Manville, Sally Hawkins, Simon Chandler, Sam Troughton

Year: 2004

Runtime: 125 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, France, New Zealand

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