Learn more about this title's writer and director in as we put Mike Leigh In the Director's Chair...
Imelda Staunton gives an overwhelming performance, exhibiting Vera's kindness, reliability, generosity, naivete, heartbreak, sense of shame, and, finally, despair, with great credibility. I agree with some of the other reviewers who state that the movie doesn't try to take sides. And yet I think that the police detective and the woman police constable's kindness to Vera suggest that they feel sympathy for her and even understand what she did and why she did it. I especially felt that as a woman, the female PC knows that this is a problem all women are in danger of encountering, and this could be a pointer towards interpretation of the movie. I don't know whether this is what the director intended to suggest, but I think that this is something that came across, the way I saw it at least. This is possibly one aspect of the strength of this film, that it allows for this interpretation.
All performances were riveting and convincing, the cinematography superb, the 50s austerity convincingly recreated. As some reviewers have already noted, the film is quite bleak and depressing. It is supposed to be, given the subject that it treats. It is a matter of the viewer coming prepared for a film which tackles a hard to swallow, painful, yet central,social issue. The series of abortions that Vera performs is emotionally draining, though not graphic, and the end is demoralizing. But all the more realistic and powerful in being so.
I highly recommend the film, provided the viewer knows what to expect. It's not meant to be a feel good movie, but a movie to make one think and debate. It may depress you to some extent, but I don't think it will leave you indifferent. Personally, I felt that the film is subtly but convincingly suggesting that there is no use trying to pretend that abortions don't happen / shouldn't happen,won't happen, and that the law and society do not / did not have the compassion necessary to deal with this problem faced by women. You may come to a different conclusion, but the point is that the film is strong enough to provoke discussion and possibly disagreement amongst its viewers.
Vera works hard as a domestic servant in post WWII London. A tiny woman, she is a bundle of energy and optimism who exudes warmth and compassion. With great sincerity, she unstintingly gives of herself and her time to help others. She continually looks in on family and neighbors, especially the elderly and infirm, to make sure they have what they need. Vera is the backbone of her family, which includes her adoring husband, Stan (Phil Davis), son Sid, (Daniel Mays), a tailor who fancies himself a man about town, and daughter Ethel, (Alex Kelly), a timid factory worker. Vera is their hearthstone, and the person who truly lights up their lives, a solid presence, full of good cheer and the ever present cuppa.
Unbeknownst to those who love her, Vera has been "helping-out young women" for years. She assists them to end their unwanted pregnancies. Vera has never discussed her work with her family, because she sees this as a confidential matter between herself and each woman she helps. I am sure, however, that she is aware of the moral issues involved in her ministries and the social stigma attached to them. The women she treats are from the working class, like Vera, and are either poor and married with too many hungry mouths to feed, or young and unwed. Vera does this work free of charge - and this is important to the storyline. It is implied that she began practicing abortion when she herself became pregnant as a girl and "needed help" herself. She refuses to use the word "abortion" because she does not see that as what she does. The procedure she uses has proved to be reliable and never before caused physical harm to anyone - that is, none of her young women ever needed hospitalization. A supposed friend, who is the middle-person between Vera and these women, has been charging on the sly, saying nothing to Vera, who would not take the fee and would insist on returning it.
Some will undoubtedly look upon Vera Drake as a criminal, others as a voice of hope in the wilderness. What is always clear is that she is sure that she is working for the good. However, when the police become involved, Vera finds herself in serious trouble with the British legal system. An element critical to the story, is that Vera has almost caused a death, and she is devastated when she learns of this. The police are not portrayed unsympathetically, however, although those who judge Vera and the law, itself, appear to be the villains here - at least this is the way Leigh writes and directs the film.
There is an interesting side story which runs parallel to Vera's. The daughter of one of her wealthy employers is raped. She has no idea that the woman who scrubs her Mum's floors can help her, and so goes to a "society doctor." With clearance from a psychiatrist, she is able to obtain an abortion in hospital, illegal though it may be, with no fuss at all. She has the money handy, 100 pounds, quite a bit more than a working girl would ever have at one time, and money and social position, (her dad works for the Defense Ministry), are what it takes to make things happen.
Ms. Staunton, credibly transforms herself from a jaunty, cheerful, loving woman to a bent, aged, depressed and very humiliated person in a matter of hours as the police disturb a family gathering, her daughter's engagement party. Frequently her facial expressions alone communicate a world of words. She won the best-actress prize at the Venice Film Festival, and the film, was named best picture of the festival.
Interestingly, Leigh, who was born in 1943, dedicates the film to his parents, a doctor and a midwife. I am sure he knows and understands the film's subject well.
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