Winner of the Best Film Award at the Venice Film Festival, director Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake" is the agonizing story of a stolid, working class London married woman who leads two lives. Vera is Imelda Staunton who won, most deservedly, the Best Actress accolade in Venice. To her beloved and loving family, she's the soul of gentleness, the centerpiece of a happy home. She works as a day domestic for people a few rungs up on England's highly striated social ladder.
But for many years, the exact number known not even to her, she's been the answer to the prayers of poor and lower class pregnant women who will not or can not carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. With a crude abortion kit, including a cheese grater identical to the one in my kitchen, hidden in a cupboard, she accepts referrals from childhood friend Lily (Ruth Sheen), a viper whose mendacity and viciousness Vera never suspects.
Vera's family hasn't a clue about her long-time passion to end unwanted pregnancies.
But abortion isn't the scene that launches the story of the Drake family. She has two children, Ethel (wonderfully played by Alex Kelly) and Sid. Husband Stan (Phil Davis) is a car mechanic working for wages for his brother, one step up the economic ladder although his materialistic wife threatens to upset that status with her coy demands for the latest appliances.
Vera regularly visits the sick and provides cheer and hot tea for the ill ones. She invites Reg (Eddie Marsan) for dinner. Her agenda is clear: she hopes her hopelessly dorky Ethel and the awkward and mumbling Reg might hit it off. Both Marsan and Kelly are strong contenders for next year's Best Supporting Nerd Oscar nominations.
But Vera's abortion activities are the heart of the tense story. She performs these procedures gratis, getting referrals from Lily, never suspecting that her acid-tongued friend is paid by the pregnant women. They're cautioned not to mention the financial arrangement to Vera who does the job and bears the true mantle of risk.
"Vera Drake" takes place in 1950 when still very war weary Britain was fighting with the U.S. in Korea. All the males in the story in one way or another were scarred or affected by World War II experiences and that was not an easy time for the women either. Stan continues distilling his combat experiences in slow confessions to his supportive and loving wife in bed with lights out.
Abortion in 1950 in England was legal under some conditions one of which was being of the class that could easily (with money and connections) procure false medical testimony as to the need for terminating a pregnancy. None of Vera's patients (I can't call them anything else), desperate, fearful, facing enormous ostracism or worse if their condition became known to family and friends, had that access.
Vera, with each "procedure," gently approaches the frightened and dependent women with the cheer appropriate for an ordinary visit to a friend afflicted with the usually benign flu. Perhaps she doesn't truly comprehend their fear of being alone after her ministration to them when she leaves with almost bubbly instructions to await the fetus's expulsion, a frightening experience especially if alone, but with no plan to return. She's efficient, using a relatively safe non-surgical abortifacient. Somewhat safe, by the law of averages, isn't in the long run good enough and one young woman almost dies.
Her mother, who knew Vera from before the war, is questioned by police called by the hospital and she gives up her 1931 co-worker.
The police interrupt a family celebration to question and arrest Vera. She knows immediately why they are there and she both crumbles emotionally, devastated, while also displaying a quiet inner strength to insist, in a soft, sobbing voice, that she just helps girls in trouble.
Leigh, who also wrote "Vera Drake, invests his lead character with a gripping vulnerability as well as a fundamental unyielding decency. Even the investigating police officers recognize she isn't a typical criminal. Burly Detective Inspector Webster (Peter Wight) is soon uncomfortable with what he has to do and he even spontaneously softens part of Vera's confession as it's written down by a junior colleague. Woman Police Constable Best (subtly played by Helen Coker) is gentle, truly kind, and one wonders whether this character would have had something supportive to say about Vera were she freed from her uniform.
Vera's services fell squarely within the Offenses Against the Person Act 1861 (and I'm very familiar with that statute having taught it many times in Criminal Law and Legal History classes). Courtroom scenes here, brief as they are, accurately reflect what a defendant confronted in His Majesty's tribunals.
Leigh's camera work, as in the wonderful "Topsy-Turvy," angles in on Vera as she grasps the unfolding horror of her situation and the inevitability of a prison sentence. She struggles to remain the emotional center of her family when she, in reality, desperately needs shoring up. Vera is projected into the viewer's face for long shots and her terror is hurting to see.
The arrant hypocrisy of England's sub rosa view of abortion at the time is displayed quietly but unforgettably as the daughter of one of Vera's customers, her father a Ministry of Defense civil servant, gets an abortion in a luxurious and safe facility (for 100 guineas, a fortune at that time) after being savagely raped by a date, a foppish cad. Without anything being said, the viewer knows he was never reproached much less arraigned for his bestiality. But his victim, Susan (Sally Hawkins), follows a script set up by a doctor and reinforced by a psychiatrist (wink-wink) that insures that her weekend away from home is discreet. Traumatic the rape was, unsettling the abortion too but for her life goes on with scarcely a bump.
Frumpy, a woman no one would notice on the Clapham omnibus, Imelda Staunton as Vera is the heart and soul of the film, her desperation at becoming embroiled with the law almost too heartbreaking at times to watch. But Leigh also makes sure that it's understood that illegal abortions posed high risks to vulnerable women. Hidebound English legal practice made criminals of women like Vera but police, prosecutors and judges also knew that their activities too often spawned some true and irreversible tragedies, including death. Leigh doesn't skip away from that reality. The Veras of her time were both benefactresses and potential killers.
The male characters in Vera's family rally around her, their love and commitment a bright spot. The police come out well too. But there's no avoiding the reality that man-made (literally) law and those who enforced it, including the sympathetic but duty-bound police, put many women in the dock where conviction was virtually insured. And, certainly, many abortionists used far more dangerous methods than Vera.
Sometimes agonizing to watch but endlessly riveting, "Vera Drake" is one of the finest films from England in years. It's not a British counterpart to "The Cider House Rules" where Michael Caine's dashing devotion to his patients and to young, orphaned boys in bucolic New England subtly removed the issue of laws restricting abortions from front and center attention. "Vera Drake" is raw and affecting. It's truly not so much pro-choice as it is a retelling, through one sympathetic character, of many very sad tales.
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