Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is a loving middle aged mother and wife to her working class family in 1950 London, cleaning houses to help pay the rent. She also visits the old and sick in her neighbourhood and cares for her elderly mother. Her cheerful disposition hides a secret extension of her caring nature: she illegally helps young women who get into trouble and can't afford the high priced, quasi legal abortions of the upper middle class set. When one of her patients falls seriously ill and has to be hospitalised, Vera Drake is found out, and she has to face the consequences, as well as the devastation it causes within her family.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Mike Leigh does lay it on rather thick, with a saintly portrait of Mrs Vera Drake, the all caring, long suffering, cheerful of disposition working class wife and mother doing good deeds of unobtrusive abortions for the girls who get into trouble. And she does it for nothing. Mother Theresa of North London, no less. Contrast this - as Leigh does - with the emotionally challenged, unattractive upper middle class girl whose mild mannered boyfriend forces himself upon her, whereupon the now pregnant girl calls on a friend who can set her up with an abortion made legal by false pretences about psychological danger. And the payment of over 100 pounds.
This crudely envisaged comparison is nevertheless a useful premise with which to explore the morality of abortions and the hypocrisy of society. The latter has roots like a tree, well beyond the obvious.
But Vera Drake has been acclaimed from Venice to Los Angeles, and it's not hard to see why. Mike Leigh plays our hearts like a maestro violinist, plucking the strings of empathy with the attack of a Stefan Grapelli. The film is superbly made, every scene a flawless piece of the jigsaw that becomes the compleat picture of Vera Drake's world, from the most ordinary kettle (used for countless cups of tea which is the balm of life in Vera's neck of the woods) to the most heartbreaking silence from a loving husband learning about Vera's secret.
The often deceptively simple dialogue is almost documentary in its accuracy and truth, while the performances are all beautifully underplayed yet they expand into three dimensional people. The secret to Mike Leigh's films, and the reason they resonate so strongly with audiences, is that his characters are inevitably needy, drawing us in, almost pulling us down the plughole as their lives disappear in a miniature whirlpool in their kitchen sink.
But what saves Leigh's film from being maudlin and defeatist is the same sustaining reality; these characters are survivors. Battle scarred and hurt, but genuine and somehow irrepressibly human. Not like the fragile bourgoisie, eh?
Review by Louise Keller:
In a controversial and emotionally taut film, Mike Leigh gets so close to his characters and subject, we feel as though we have become part of their lives for a little while. Winner of the Golden Lion in 2004 for Best Film, Vera Drake opens a window into the lives of ordinary people, envelops us with their secrets and involves us on their emotional journey. With its outstanding, soul-baring central performance by Imelda Stauntan, it's a memorable film that painstakingly creates a truthful and often painful reality.
When we first meet Vera Drake, with her no-nonsense manner and cheery smile, there is nothing distinguishable about her. This unassuming woman in a plain overcoat could be anyone's mother or grandmother, in working class London in 1950. At home, she is the pivot of her close-knit family, and when we meet her at work as a cleaning lady in an affluent family's home, we think we know all there is to know. When Vera reassuringly says that all that needs to be done is to put the kettle on, little do we know that it is not to make a cup of tea, but for her work in her secret life as an abortionist. Not that she sees it that way. As far as Vera is concerned, she is helping out young girls in need, as if it were her unspoken mission in life. And of course, she doesn't do it for money. She is unaware that Ruth Sheen's Lily, who gives her names and addresses for the 5pm appointments over a cup of tea, is pocketing two guineas for the services rendered. (By contrast, we learn that for a wealthy young girl in need of the same service, the required clinic and other associated fees, is one hundred guineas.)
Set at a time when abortion was illegal, not even Vera's family knows of the Higginson syringe, the cheese grater, carbolic soap and other items kept in the cloth bag in the top of her bedroom closet. The film comes to a dramatic climax with the arrival of the police, as the whole family is gathered to celebrate the engagement of daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) with Reg (Eddie Marsan). The camera lingers on Vera's face through this and subsequent scenes, when the sharp pain on Staunton's face replaces her habitual carefree disposition. Our hearts sink as Vera tells husband Stan (Phil Davis) what she has done, while the police look on, and the camera moves closer and closer, bringing us face to face with harsh reality.
Leigh has a knack for cutting through the superficial, and while Vera Drake may seem too good to be true - an adult Mary Poppins - the film shows Leigh at his best.
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VERA DRAKE (M)
CAST: Imelda Staunton, Richard Graham, Eddie Marsan, Anna Keaveney, Alex Kelly, Daniel Mays, Phil Davis, Lesley manville
PRODUCER: Simon Channing-Williams
DIRECTOR: Mike Leigh
SCRIPT: Mike Leigh
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Dick Pope
EDITOR: Jim Clark
MUSIC: Andrew Dickson
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Eve Stewart
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Dendy
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 10, 2005