- Vera Drake (movie 2004) review: At – and as – the very core of Mike Leigh’s postwar London-set family/socially conscious drama, British stage veteran Imelda Staunton creates a portrayal for the ages as the titular working-class wife and mother who also happens to perform illegal abortions on the sly.
- Vera Drake was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
Vera Drake (movie 2004) review: Imelda Staunton creates an indelible portrayal in Mike Leigh’s family + illegal abortion drama
Screenwriter-director Mike Leigh’s touches are found everywhere in Vera Drake, from the movie’s drab, working-class social setting to the somewhat bizarre characters that inhabit that milieu (at least in Leigh’s oeuvre).
And yet Vera Drake can’t quite be considered a “Mike Leigh Film.”
After all, 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 magnificent tour de force carries the movie to heights it would never have reached otherwise.
Set in postwar England circa 1950, Vera Drake is the story of a kind-hearted, simple-minded, middle-aged cleaning lady, Vera, the wife of mechanic Stan Drake (Phil 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 a few goods, learns of women who wish to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
Always eager to assist the distraught and the afflicted, Vera helps those women induce a miscarriage. Once her job is done, she 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 the supreme confidence to which only the very stupid and the completely insane 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 and/or scientific knowledge – 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. As to be expected, that’s 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 she 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.
System to blame
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 for any “accidents” to a system that does not provide safe abortions.
Of course, that’s not to say that Leigh is altogether wrong. There surely is a case to be made against a society that allows rich women to have an abortion with relative ease, while the poor must make do with 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, 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 matters to him is the suffering 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.
Elsewhere, the filmmaker imbues his movie with a rather artificial flavor.
True, Vera Drake’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 Drake, for instance, 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.
Supporting standouts Ruth Sheen & Eddie Marsan
In spite of the meticulous preparations and rehearsals that go into Mike Leigh’s big-screen projects – or perhaps because of them – several Vera Drake performances feel much too 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 film’s highlights, and Eddie Marsan as Ethel’s introspective suitor Reg.
When, at a particularly dismal Christmas celebration at the Drake household, Reg tells Vera that the party is the best he has ever been to – “smashing” – viewers will likely be left wondering about the character’s sanity and lack of tact, but not for a moment will they doubt Marsan’s sincerity as an actor. What could have been a ridiculous sequence is made positively touching by his performance.
On a larger scale, the movie itself is saved time and again by the performance of its star.
‘Consummate actress’ Imelda Staunton
As Vera Drake, Imelda Staunton convincingly exhibits saintly character traits that, whether in movies or in life, almost invariably come across as sugary and bogus.
Just consider: As a selfless, kind, brave, naïve, gentle, and cuddly creature, Vera 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 absurd, 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, this viewer didn’t feel like slapping her out of her misery. Instead, I had to hold back my own tears. That’s how credible 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 have begged for our sympathy while suffering under the thumb of an inhumane justice system. Capable actors, from Charles Chaplin as the Little Tramp to Brenda Blethyn as the single mother in Mike Leigh’s own Secrets & Lies, have often fallen into the abyss of self-pity.
Had Vera Drake been made in 1950s Italy, the – slightly altered – title role would likely have been played by Giulietta Masina, 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 had trusted his audience as much.
Despite having stacked nearly all cards in Vera’s favor, Leigh wants to ensure we’re aware of her moral superiority to those who judge her. For instance, after our heroine’s big secret is revealed, her selfish and – horrors! – unabashedly sexual sister-in-law, the bourgeois Joyce (Heather Craney), has the gall to remark, “How could she be so selfish?”
Fortunately, Imelda Staunton trusts us unconditionally. As a result, Vera Drake stands tall atop this actress’ small but powerful shoulders.
Vera Drake (movie 2004) cast & crew
Direction & Screenplay: Mike Leigh.
Cast: Imelda Staunton. Phil Davis. Peter Wight. Daniel Mays. Alex Kelly. Eddie Marsan. Ruth Sheen. Sally Hawkins. Chris O’Dowd. Heather Craney. Lesley Manville. Jim Broadbent. Simon Chandler. Adrian Scarborough. Fenella Woolgar. Tom Ellis. Lesley Sharp.
“Vera Drake (Movie 2004): Imelda Staunton” notes
 “We live in an overpopulated world,” Mike Leigh told The Times of London. “There is no question that to bring an unwanted and unloved child into this chaos is deeply irresponsible. There is no question that you destroy life when you terminate a pregnancy. But there is also no question that choice ought to exist.”
“Vera Drake (Movie 2004)” endnotes
Daniel Mays, Phil Davis, and Imelda Staunton Vera Drake movie images: Les Films Alain Sarde | Momentum Pictures.
“Vera Drake (Movie 2004): Sublime Imelda Staunton” last updated in April 2023.
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.
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.