Vera Drake (12A)

Written and Directed by Mike Leigh
Screening at FACT from 7th January 2004

Reviewed by Tim Kopp

Mike Leigh’s new film about a housewife’s furtive activities as a back street abortionist couldn’t be timelier in light of the incumbent US administration’s regressive stance on abortion. But irrespective of its topical resonance, Vera Drake is a deeply compassionate, poignant and masterful drama with a mesmerising performance by Imelda Staunton. ***** out of five.

London in the early winter of 1950. Vera Drake works as a cleaning lady in upper-class households while also catering for her ailing elderly mother. At home, she is in a stable, loving relationship with her husband Stan and her two children, Sid and shy, introverted Ethel who falls in love with family friend Reg. A friend of Vera’s, Lily Clarke pays her regular visits and unbeknown to the family, arranges for Vera to meet with and perform abortions on desperate wives and young girls.

Vera Drake, the story of a woman whose good intentions lead to her downfall in a post-war society driven by religious faith and moral conservatism, begins harmlessly enough: as Leigh establishes Vera’s daily routine as a cleaning lady and a nurse for her bed-ridden mother and portrays her devotion to her family at home, she reassuringly suggests that a cup of tea will help to deal with the daily chores and personal worries, and to be content with life. Her attitude and demeanour in these early scenes evoke a relatively carefree, simple and innocent way of life often associated with the era of the 1950s but the stark and sparse environment of the Drakes’ working class home also makes it clear that as content and pragmatic Vera and her family are, that they live through difficult times. This is contrasted two-fold in the film’s parallel storyline that revolves around Susan Wells, the daughter of the rich household where Vera is employed: the etiquette of the rich does not allow for a strong bond of the family to develop, and it is out of fear of being ostracised for her date-rape by a boyfriend that Susan hesitates to break her silence. In contrast, Reg’s proposal to Ethel gives Vera’s family reason to celebrate. It is partially out of this context that the tragedy of the film’s second half gains such bitter irony and poignancy: the turning point comes when a young girl nearly dies as a result of the latest of abortions that Vera secretly performs.

Leigh has come in for criticism for simplifying neighbourhood abortion and sanitising Vera Drake but I feel that the film invalidates the latter accusation in that it gives a psychological motivation for Vera’s benevolence that rings true, while the greed and exploitative behaviour that has been attested to some of the historical abortionists is reflected in the character of Lily Clarke. Altogether, given the calls of the Republican administration and the Christian right in the US for reinstating pre-1960s anti-abortion laws and equal condemnation from the Catholic Church in Europe, Vera Drake is bound to resonate more strongly with its audience than the Fifties period setting initially suggests. Leigh is also consistent in continuing with the contrast between rich and poor when he shows the social injustice evident in the vastly superior medical and clinical treatment of the rich, and he is coherent in his insistence that isolated Susan is equally deserving of his and our compassion. These scenes are as good as anything else in the film but given that today’s health care system provides for all people, the unfairness of the class system that Leigh criticises here carries only a historical meaning so that such scenes will probably connect less strongly with contemporary viewers than the other issues raised in the film. However, Vera Drake is so sure-footed and immaculately realised as a whole that such negligible flaws don’t take away from the achievement of Mike Leigh and his cast and crew.

The production and costume design authentically recreate the period and work exceedingly well within the limitations of what has been by all accounts an extremely tight budget, while Dick Pope’s cinematography achieves a fine balance between detached observation and capturing the characters’ emotions in expressive close-ups. But what makes Vera Drake a powerful work of great emotional intensity are the combined efforts of Leigh’s direction and his cast, in particular an outstanding performance by Imelda Staunton who deservedly won a Golden Lion in Venice last year. When the inspectors arrive at the Drakes’ house to arrest her as the family is celebrating Reg and Ethel’s impending marriage, the impression on Staunton’s face as it dawns on Vera that her family’s life is about to be shattered, and her subsequent efforts to protect her relatives are profoundly moving and the best indicator of how brilliant Staunton’s performance is. That said, it is just as much her interaction with Phil Davis as her husband Stan and Peter Wight as Detective Webster, both of whom show deep sympathy and understanding, that accounts for the drama and suspense of the second half. Leigh’s direction shows restraint and yet manages to be passionate about the issues of free choice and the unjust moral and social value systems that the laws and politics of yesteryear and by implication of our own present impose on people. Vera Drake is a triumph for its director, and it is also the finest British film in years.