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'Vera Drake' Review: Imelda Staunton Outstanding in Illegal Abortion Drama

Imelda Staunton, Philip Davis in Vera Drake
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.

Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake

Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake by Mike LeighBeing 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.

Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake

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, Imelda Staunton, Philip Davis in Vera Drake
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 in Vera Drake

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). Dir. / Scr.: 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 Scr.: Mike Leigh

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2 Comments to 'Vera Drake' Review: Imelda Staunton Outstanding in Illegal Abortion Drama

  1. Kevin Aschacker

    What a disservice to an incredibly nuanced film. To completely misunderstand the period (post-war London) is bad enough, but to then scramble to attach various garden-variety adjectives in a vain and utterly transparent ham-handed attempt to 'describe' the plot deserves two and a half years in jail. Perhaps readers of People magazine and watchers of situation-comedies have been completely enlightened and become scholarly students of Mike Leigh films in the wake of this erudite and probing essay on the manners of the London working-class circa 1950. But I highly doubt it.

    With regard to the appearance of the characters, those with 'bad teeth and funny faces' or the ones who 'look like they might belong in a mental institution', I'll only say that like very much of the best English-language drama that is born in the U.K., the characters are and feel like real people. You know, not vacuous seeming and generic-looking 'pretty' types. Why, what a brash approach! Imagine, Leigh values authenticity! Where does he get off, not realizing some film 'reviewers' want to see American Gladiators and starlets in gritty character studies? The cheek.

    And this device Leigh employs, you know, the one where he 'condescends' to these evocative, sympathetic characters while simultaneously painting a heart-rending and quietly jarring study of manners and morals at street-level! What a Machiavelli! The sparse and real dialogue must be so 'carefully calculated' that it unhinges the viewing experience of some.

    This film is a detailed and intricate exposee of an unkown time as seen from the viewpoint of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Sixty years never seemed a chasm so wide. In 1950 in poor working-class districts of London, memories of the blitz were fresh and immediate, and intricate details of who died and where and how were vernacular, spoken in a language everyone knew. Neighbourhoods were incredibly intimate and tight-knit extended 'families' of the people who had done the heavy-lifting of war, sending sons (and daughters) away. Those who stayed were mercilessly bombarded and all the horrors of injury and disease that came afterward were a grim years-long reminder of the hell that came from the skies. The incredibly sharp contrast that Leigh draws with the return to innocent daily life is masterful medicine to remind us that darkness fades. These characters are exactly as they should be. Full of the quiet understated joy of daily preoccupation with life. We don't need flash and dash to draw these scenes, the reality of the working-class and the quiet almost ego-less studies in these performances are exactly on the mark.

    I understand that for some viewers, the ability to actually know what they are looking at is elusive. This is more true with authentically re-created period settings and the manners that inhabit them than it is with a more -egalitarian- approach to movie-making. Thankfully we have the superb work of Mike Leigh to remind us that real film is not only possible but far more interesting than the average flick.

    All these performances are superbly good, from Imelda Staunton to Sally Hawkins and even the amazingly endearing work that Alex Kelly turns in. This is a master-class in movie-making, a clinic. It's worth watching twice. I felt more than 'trusted' while watching it. And not at all condescended to.

  2. tim wilkes

    The main pulls in the film come down to the political norms of the time. If you wanted an abortion and could afford to have it, you were refered to a specalist to examine your mental state. Easy outcome if you were a rape victim as such. All in all, if abortions were properly legal to all range of class. Vera wouldn't need to do what she does to help these women. As a character clearly said towards the end.
    'If you can't afford them, you can't have them.'
    Easy and done, if you were poor, you were done for. The use of gender attitudes played strongly as well. Her sons reaction to his mothers secret life is clearly understandable, all his life he's known his mother as the good and sensible person she was. To find out she does what she does breaks everythings he knows.
    'Why'd you do it mom, it little babies.'
    This line is split in two, one reflecting his shock, the other reflecting his gender norms. On the other hand you could put this into one and conclude it, in saying that her son simply has no clue on the pain and suffering bringing up a child is on the rubbish heap is. Before, you see him get excited by two girls in the dance hall, he doesn't know them but gets flirty anyway. We know how it goes, guy meets nice girl, few drinks, back to his or her place and there on. You know what can happen then, it's a simple scene, but one that connects the context of the story with the very painful subject of its core. Abortion, if the girl got pregnant and was minimal to her notes, well kiss your life good bye. This is never included or simply hinted, but it's an event that was a truth of the hey day that led onto trouble.

    Back onto what I was saying, Vera may appear the soft spoke soul that she is, but to perform abortions dangerously. Opens up her personality to reveal her fury at injustice and lack of control her own gender had over their own bodies. The talk scene in the back room when Vera is found out examines her illness on the system.
    ' I help them out, when they've got no one to turn to.'
    Examine that quote carefully, when they've got no one to turn to. What does that say. A form of femanisum maybe. It these quotes which brought about the movement, the couldn't help themselves out, your not going to do it, I will. Another quote shortly follows.
    'That's what you call it.'
    It's true to say that vera isn't the most educated person. Thinking she's done nothing wrong by killing an unwanted life. But on the counter and obvious part of that, she's educated enough to know that class and wealth mean a great deal in the face of community politics. Again it all boils down to the femanist attitude, women were taking control of terrafying situation and getting penalised for it. Even is you did adopt it after the birth, you still had 9 months of hell and sickenss.