Wife. Mother. Criminal.
Running Time: 125 minutes
US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 12a
Country: France, New Zealand (Aotearoa), United Kingdom
While British films can sometimes be regarded with great affection at home, they rarely do well abroad – unless they happen to be the sort of strait-laced Bonham Carter historical dramas or soppy Hugh Grant contemporary rom-coms that pander to comfortable stereotypes for a foreign market. Mike Leigh, however, has managed to win one international prize after another for portraying aspects of British life less easily reduced to such picture postcard fantasy. Most of his working-class ensemble pieces are set very much in the present day, but following the success of his Gilbert and Sullivan biopic 'Topsy Turvy' (1999) – which was inevitably set in the past – Leigh has once again turned to period drama with his latest work, 'Vera Drake' – without ever abandoning the ideological concerns of his more contemporary films. Set amidst the postwar austerity of early 1950s London, 'Vera Drake' offers the viewer a decidedly ambivalent brand of nostalgia, while addressing a subject – abortion – that is still, at least in some quarters, as contentious today as it was half a century ago.
Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) has devoted herself to helping others. When she is not cleaning the homes of her wealthy employers, she is cheerily tending to her elderly mother, checking in on her invalid neighbour to offer tea and sympathy, or inviting lonely war veterans like Reg (Eddie Marsan) over to her small tenement apartment to share dinner with her husband Stan (Phil Davis) and adult children Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly). Yet what none of them know is that for years Vera has also been secretly helping out young girls “what find themselves in the family way” – and when one of her illegally performed abortions goes wrong and the police turn up at her door, both Vera herself and the happiness of her family seem destined for ruin.
At the 2004 Venice Film Festival, 'Vera Drake' earned Imelda Staunton the Coppa Volpi for best actress – yet while her performance as Vera is note-perfect, the characterisation of Vera is one of the film's greatest problems. It is difficult not to admire Leigh's boldness in giving the Christian virtues of selfless generosity, charitable goodwill and quiet passivity to a backstreet abortionist, but by presenting Vera with an almost cartoonlike saintliness from start to finish, Leigh misses an opportunity to engage seriously with the moral complexity of the abortion issue and some viewers will be left longing for Vera to be a shadier, more difficult figure, like the protagonist of Leigh's far more confronting 'Naked' (1993). What is more, once Vera has been arrested, her mute victimhood borders on catatonia – and even if this is supposed to reflect the powerlessness of women, or of the 'lower orders', before the legal apparatuses of the Establishment, it makes the film's second half seem to drag, carried as it is purely by pathos without the accompanying support of drama.
Still, 'Vera Drake' deserves high praise for the richness of its incidental details and the concise strokes with which its minor characters are drawn – whether it is the palpable discomfort in Stan's uncertainty as to whether he works “for” or “with” his more affluent brother, or the shy courtship of Reg and Ethel, or even the prosecution's repeated emphasis on the inclusion of a cheese-grater in Vera's abortion kit as though to suggest it were an instrument of torture (in fact she uses it to grate soap). A subplot in which Susan (Sally Hawkins), the daughter of one of Vera's employers, is shown obtaining a clinical abortion both legally and with relative ease, provides a neat socioeconomic contrast to the circumstances of Vera's patients, equally in need of assistance if far less privileged.
The picture is finished by its stunning (if that is the word) evocation of fifties drabness, courtesy of Eve Stewart's production design and Jacqueline Durran's costume design.
It's Got: Faithfully drab period detail, double-edged nostalgia, wonderful performances, and a Marxist analysis of a controversial subject matter.
It Needs: A more rounded, less saintly heroine; less grotesque caricaturing of its middle class characters (a regular feature in Leighs films); and a little less tea-drinking (it is hard on the bladder by the second hour).
Alternatives:Capturing the Friedmans, Secrets and Lies, Topsy Turvy
Superbly acted 1950s-set drama in which illegal abortions engender an unexpected kind of family tragedy – not quite Mike Leigh's best, but still quietly devastating.