Vera Drake

Vera Drake


Reviewed by: David Haviland

Unlike most of Mike Leigh's work, Vera Drake is explicitly issue led. It tells the story of Vera (Imelda Staunton), a back street abortionist in Fifties London, who is prosecuted after a woman she helps is taken to hospital. Performing an abortion was a criminal offence before 1967, carrying a minimum sentence of 18 months.

The film is likely to cause controversy, but Leigh is adamant that the film is a drama rather than a polemic: "First of all, my job is to present you with the moral dilemma which you have to confront. I don't think these things are black-and-white."

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The film begins slowly, as we follow Vera in her daily routine. She rushes from one cleaning job to another and works with the energy of someone who believes that work has a moral value of its own. She stops to make tea and plump cushions for some of her elderly neighbours and rushes home in time to cook for her family.

This consists of husband Stan (Philip Davis) and two grown-up children, Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly); and we learn their stories while we wait for Vera's to begin. Stan works as a mechanic for his brother and the financial implications of being an employee, rather than partner, are clearly a source of embarrassment for both men.

Sid is a genial tailor's assistant, who trades nylons for cigarettes at the pub. Ethel is meek and mousy and Vera finds time to set her up with Reg (Eddie Marsan), a good-natured neighbour, who is possibly even shyer.

With the languid pace that Leigh fans will be used to, the film lays out these and other stories, without hinting at the revelations to come. Half an hour in, we learn Vera's secret: one of the ways in which she helps people is by performing abortions for working-class women, free of charge. These are organised by Lily (Ruth Sheen), a hard-faced wheeler-dealer, who neglects to tell Vera that she charges the girls two quid for the service.

Alongside this, we see Susan (Sally Hawkins), the daughter of one of Vera's wealthy cleaning clients, who finds herself pregnant after a sickening date rape. With the help of her aunt, she pays £100 for a legal abortion through a psychiatrist. The film's suggestion is clear: criminalizing abortion only prevents the poor from getting treated.

Vera Drake marks the latest progression in Leigh's career, as it's visually far more impressive than any of his previous work, which too often betrays his years in television. The period detail is meticulous and the film uses its locations to powerful effect; in one scene in particular the cramped nature of Vera's house is central to the tension of the scene.

A more traditional trademark of a Mike Leigh film is the quality of the acting, which comes after months of improvisation and rehearsal. Staunton gives a career-making performance, presenting Vera as a meek, anxious woman, who doesn't see the value of thinking too much. She is likely to win the plaudits and perhaps an Oscar, but the supporting cast is equally accomplished. As a result, every scene carries the simple pleasure of watching first class actors at work.

Leigh is also renowned for his dialogue, which is consistently authentic and loaded with comic repetition and misunderstanding. Characters rarely speak directly of the thing that's on their minds, so conversations are charged with subtext, which gives the actors freedom to reveal character in more subtle and expressive ways.

This is most apparent in the charming scene when Reg plucks up the courage to propose to Ethel. On the page, it might make Reg look like a brute, as the proposal is distinctly unromantic. However, on film, the contrast between the characters' inability to communicate and their obvious tender feelings for each other give the scene a genuine emotional power.

In every respect, this is Leigh's most impressive film to date and yet despite its obvious strengths it lacks the emotional impact of his best work, such as Life Is Sweet and Secrets And Lies. The problem is the story, which seems relentlessly gloomy and downbeat, lacking moments of breakdown and reconciliation that were so crucial to previous successes.

Those films were entirely character-driven, but with Vera Drake the presence of an "issue" is too apparent and the message direct and heavy-handed. As a result, it does not allow Vera a moment of triumph, or struggle. Instead, she becomes a martyr and as she does so we start to lose sympathy.

Leigh may not think so, but Vera Drake is a polemic and suffers accordingly.

Nonetheless, it is an important and moving film, which may also be the most heartfelt work yet from one of our finest filmmakers. It ends with a dedication: "In loving memory of my parents: a doctor and a midwife."

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
Andrea Mullaney ****

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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