Vera Drake

Vera Drake


Reviewed by: Andrea Mullaney

In America, where Bush's re-election had everyone gearing up for a renewed fight over abortion law, Vera Drake became a national talking point. That's pretty unusual for a film by a low budget, if respected, British filmmaker like Mike Leigh, who has never really broken out of the arthouse circuit before.

Pro-choice activists have used this story of a working-class woman who performs back street abortions in the days when poor girls had no other control over their pregnancies, arguing that this is how things would revert to if legal options were restricted.

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Here, where the subject is controversial but not at the same level as a political issue, other aspects of the film stand out more. The 1950 setting is impeccable - unlike so many period dramas, the clothes, furniture and hair don't draw attention to themselves, loudly proclaiming their era more noticeably than real life. They seem so right, suitably drab in this still-rationed, post-war traumatised world.

Vera is a kindly, mumsy, capable woman, the heart of her small family and secretly "helping out girls in trouble" on the side. Her methods are frighteningly simple and no-nonsense, as efficient when terminating pregnancies as when finding a suitor for her hapless, shy daughter.

The film could definitely use more context - unless you're an expert in the subject, it's not at all clear just how dangerous Vera's methods are and we're not told what usually happens to the girls, with only one aftermath shown. And it's also unclear how common her apolitical altruism was in those days, compared to her rapacious friend who sets up the appointments and secretly charges the desperate.

Admirably, Leigh resists the temptation to pile on the horror. When Vera is arrested, she collapses in shame and panic, but he doesn't show the police as monsters, but actually quite kind, if unyielding. A small side-plot about a middle-class girl having very different experiences when she becomes pregnant - a doctor packs her off to a smart nursing home for an official termination, rather than Vera's carbolic soap and unsupervised bleeding - is an interesting contrast.

The film belongs, though, to its actors, especially Imelda Staunton, whose performance has already won her Best Actor prizes from the Venice Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Critics' Association and the European Film Awards. Only potential controversy over the film's subject matter can surely deny her an Oscar, too. While in the first half of the film she gives an immensely unvain, unshowy portrait of a deeply ordinary woman, it's the way she transforms by the end that you remember. Watching her haul herself up a staircase, you sense Vera collapsing in on herself, ageing years ahead of her time.

Phil Davis, as Vera's unsuspecting, loving husband, is equally great in an unsung role. In fact, all the cast are excellent, though Leigh's traditional improvisation methods does mean, as usual, that some of them talk almost entirely in cliches. Well, phrases become cliches because people use them a lot, of course, but not all the time, surely. Still, you believe in these characters and feel you know them, making the downfall quite heartrending.

It's a film both charming and traumatic. Not an easy watch, exactly, but certainly a rewarding one.

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

The Exile *****
Jennie Kermode ****1/2
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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