Imelda Staunton, Philip Davis, Vera Drake
Director Mike Leigh's touches are found everywhere in Vera Drake, from the film's drab, working-class social setting to the somewhat bizarre characters that inhabit that milieu (at least in Leigh's oeuvre). Even so, Vera Drake cannot quite be considered a "Mike Leigh Film." This bleak drama about a kind and gentle – if none too bright – part-time cleaning woman, part-time wife and mother, and part-time abortionist truly belongs to its leading lady, veteran stage and screen actress Imelda Staunton, whose superb tour de force carries the film to heights it would never have reached otherwise.
Set in post-war England circa 1950, Vera Drake is the story of a naïve, kind-hearted, middle-aged cleaning lady, Vera, the wife of mechanic Stan Drake (Philip Davis) and the mother of two grown children, Sid (Daniel Mays), a tailor, and Ethel (Alex Kelly), a mousy wallflower.
In her spare time, the ever-cheerful Vera takes care of her ailing mother and helps out neighbors in need. Whenever her friend Lily (Ruth Sheen) shows up with black-market foodstuff – rationing was still the norm back then – Vera, while buying some goods, learns of women who wish to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Always eager to assist people in need, Vera helps those usually frightened and distressed women induce a miscarriage. Once her job is done, Vera wishes her patients luck and quietly walks away. Her services come free of judgment and free of charge.
Vera then returns home to cook a nice meal for her family, or perhaps she goes to the movies to laugh out loud watching Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck. She has performed a good deed, and all is well.
Being intellectually challenged, Vera has no moral ambiguity or self-doubt. She exudes that supreme confidence to which only the very stupid are entitled. All she knows is that she has helped someone in need. The fact that such assistance involves the termination of a life – whether human or pre-human, depending on one's beliefs – is never a part of the equation. Moreover, she remains oblivious to the fact that her miscarriage-inducing method of using hot water and disinfectant may ultimately endanger the lives of the women she is trying to help. Unsurprisingly, that is exactly what happens.
When finally caught by the police, Vera is horrified to learn that one of her patients had almost died following a womb infection. (A daily occurrence according to a doctor.) As far as Vera knew, that had never happened during her 20-year career as an undercover abortionist. But then again, how could she know? She left those women to their fate after filling their wombs with disinfectant and hot water, knowing in her heart, bless her, that all would end well.
Despite such monumental stupidity, Mike Leigh is adamant: We must love his heroine. Thus, Leigh's (however improvised) screenplay absolves Vera by shifting the full blame to a system that does not provide safe abortions.
That is not to say that Leigh is necessarily wrong. There surely is a point to be made for a society that allows rich women to have an abortion with relative ease, while the poor must rely on back-alley hacks. In Vera Drake, a wealthy rape victim, the daughter of one of the families for whom Vera works, goes to a doctor who arranges an abortion for her. The fee: £100, a hefty amount in those days. As a comparison, the sugar-and-coffee trafficker Lily, who is portrayed as a ruthless mercenary, charges a miserly couple of guineas to put an unhappily pregnant woman in touch with Vera. (Needless to say, the saintly Vera is unaware of Lily's dealings.) People like Vera, Mike Leigh is telling us, were therefore a necessity – even if a dangerous one.
As for the ethics – or lack thereof – of Vera's underground practice, the most "profound" argument found in Vera Drake takes place when Vera's son, Sid, accuses her of "killing little babies." Since Vera remains silent, we are kept in the dark about her thoughts on the matter.
Unfortunately, Mike Leigh finds such issues none too relevant. What really matters to him is the suffering poor little Vera must go through after she is caught. We feel her humiliation when she must tell her husband about her secret practice. We feel her pain when Sid (temporarily) turns against her. We feel her fear as she awaits the merciless sentence that will be imposed on her by the British judicial system. Luckily, the film has Imelda Staunton to keep in check Leigh's bathos-prone hand.
Alex Kelly, Daniel Mays, Imelda Staunton, Philip Davis in Mike Leigh's Vera Drake
Elsewhere, the director imbues Vera Drake with a somewhat artificial flavor. True, the film's 1950s working-class environment looks real – cramped homes and ugly clothes – but Leigh, as usual, overdoes the unattractiveness of his characters. His laborers have bad teeth and funny faces, and several of them look like they might belong in a mental institution. (Alex Kelly's Ethel, Vera's pathologically shy daughter, is a typical inhabitant of Mike Leigh's Mondo Labor.) Worse yet, Leigh treats them like children – sympathetically, of course, but with a not inconsiderable degree of condescension.
In spite of the meticulous preparations and rehearsals that go into Leigh's projects – or perhaps because of them – several performances feel much too carefully calculated. Even so, a few of the supporting players deliver excellent work, most notably Ruth Sheen as the no-nonsense Lily, whose brittle haughtiness is one of the highlights of the film, and Eddie Marsan as Reg, Ethel's introspective suitor.
When, during a particularly dismal Christmas celebration at the Drakes, Reg tells Vera that the party is the best he has ever been to, "smashing," I was left wondering about the character's sanity and lack of tact, but I never doubted Marsan's sincerity as an actor. What could have been a ridiculous sequence is made quite touching by his performance. On a larger scale, the film itself is saved time and again by the performance of its star.
Imelda Staunton succeeds in displaying saintly character traits that almost invariably end up seeming sugary and phony, for Vera is not only selflessly kind, she is also brave, naïve, gentle, cuddly, and childlike. She is Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, and Minnie Mouse all rolled into one. And if that weren't enough, she talks the talk and walks the walk of those little fairy godmothers of Disney cartoons, her magic wand being the long rubber tube she inserts into her patients' vaginas. A few short words, and voilà! Pregnancy over.
If all this sounds utterly ridiculous, well, it is. But Staunton is such a consummate actress, tackling her role with such gusto and honesty that when Vera sheds a little tear here, a bigger one there, I didn't feel like slapping her out of her misery. Instead, I wanted to hug her while shedding my own big and small tears, too. That is how convincing she is as a personification of goodness, the likes of which have rarely been seen on screen.
In the hands of most other performers, Vera would doubtlessly have begged for our sympathy while suffering under the thumb of an unpitying justice system. Capable actors, from Charles Chaplin as the poor little tramp to Brenda Blethyn as the poor little single mother in Leigh's own Secrets & Lies, have frequently fallen into the hole of self-pity.
Had Vera Drake been made in 1950s Italy, the – slightly altered – title role would most likely have been played by Giulietta Masina. Masina was an expert at using her enormous, sad eyes to beg audiences for compassion, as can be attested in Federico Fellini's La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. Staunton never resorts to such tactics. Overflowing with kindness and light, she knows we will care even more if she refuses to ask for our pity.
If only Mike Leigh trusted his audience as much. Despite having stacked nearly all cards in Vera's favor, Leigh still insists on making sure we realize that Vera is morally superior to those who judge her. For instance, after our heroine's big secret is revealed her selfish and – horrors! – highly sexual sister-in-law, the bourgeois Joyce (Heather Craney), has the gall to remark, "How could she be so selfish?" How indeed.
Fortunately, Imelda Staunton trusts us unconditionally. As a result, Vera Drake stands tall atop this actress' tiny – but incredibly powerful – shoulders.
Note: A version of this Vera Drake review was initially posted in November 2004.
VERA DRAKE (2004). Direction and screenplay: Mike Leigh. Cast: Imelda Staunton, Philip Davis, Peter Wight, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Eddie Marsan, Ruth Sheen, Sally Hawkins, Chris O'Dowd, Heather Craney.
3 Academy Award Nominations
Best Direction: Mike Leigh
Best Actress: Imelda Staunton
Best Original Screenplay: Mike Leigh