Vera Drake (United Kingdom/France/New Zealand, 2004)
Although Vera Drake is about the downfall of an abortionist working during a time when the law in England decreed that it was unlawful to perform an "unauthorized" operation, this isn't really an "abortion movie." That's the context, but the tale is a lot closer to a Greek tragedy than a sermon. As always, Mike Leigh keeps his camera firmly fixed on his central character. We see her, warts and all, at her best and worst, and her tragic flaw - that of willful obliviousness - is too obvious to miss.
Before I discuss the film and the work of lead actress Imelda Staunton, it is worth saying something about how Leigh handles the matter of abortion. By setting the movie in 1951, he sidesteps many of the thorny issues of contemporary movies about this subject. While the film is openly critical of the circumstances in the early 1950s that allowed women of wealth to have safe, comfortable procedures in clinics while poorer women were forced to resort to "back alley" operations, it does not take a stand on the "rightness" or "wrongness" of abortion in general. It treats it as a fact of existence that will not go away regardless of what the law says. Leigh's goal here is to dramatize, not preach. (For purposes of comparison, Vera Drake is less strident in its views of abortion than John Irving's Oscar-nominated The Cider House Rules, which dealt, albeit peripherally, with the same subject.)
For the first half of the film, we view the title character as a cliché come to life: a cheerful, always helpful, grandmotherly type of woman who's ready with a kind word or an offer to "put the kettle on." Imelda Staunton (a "familiar face" to audiences of British productions - she has been in Peter's Friends, Much Ado About Nothing, and Sense and Sensibility, to name a few) plays the part like everyone's beloved aunt or grandmother. She's a little eccentric, but no more than is to be expected of someone of her disposition - or so we initially think. Then we learn that, on the side, she has a secret - she performs abortions for women who can't afford to get them done "the right way." She is not a barbaric surgeon - she uses a syringe to pump a woman's womb full of soapy water, which results in a miscarriage. There are no coat hangers or other unpleasant instruments involved.
Vera does not view what she does as wrong, even though she is aware it's against the law. She doesn't use the word "abortion." Instead, she refers to herself as "helping women." Unfortunately, when one of the women she "helps" ends up in the hospital and nearly dies, a detective inspector (Peter Wight) is forced to interrupt a Drake family celebration to confront Vera with evidence of her crime. She immediately goes to pieces, and, thereafter, little is left of the lively, good-natured woman who inhabited the body for the film's first hour. All that remains is a broken, whimpering shell.
Leigh's ability to get the most compelling performances out of his actors - a quality that has defined his best movies (such as Secrets and Lies) - is in evidence here. His camera literally gets in Staunton's face and stays there. And it's the minute changes in her expression, and the ways in which her eyes react, that highlight this as a performance to be remembered. (Staunton won Best Actress at the 2004 Venice Film Festival for this role.) Her face is like a canvas. In the beginning it shows the kind of lazy obtuseness one might expect to find in the visage of a woman of limited intelligence who has found contentment in her life's routine. By the end, there is terror, bewilderment, and panic. Once her ability to offer to make a cup of tea is taken away, the foundation of her existence is shattered.
The other significant characters in the film are members of Vera's family. There's her gruff-but-devoted husband, Stan (Phil Davis), who has no idea about his wife's double life. When he finds out, he is blindsided, but decides to stand by her, even though he does not agree with what she has done. Vera's son, Sid (Daniel Mays), views his mother's actions as a betrayal. Her mousey daughter, Ethel (Alex Kelly), is supportive of Vera in her own quiet way, as is Ethel's socially inept fiancé, Reg (Eddie Marsan). Stan's younger brother, Frank (Adrian Scarborough), who has idolized Vera, is devastated. His wife, Joyce (Heather Craney), who is considerably younger than him, has little time for Vera or her family, and sees the scandal as an opportunity to sever ties. The only "well-known" member of the cast is Leigh "regular" Jim Broadbent, who has a credited cameo as a judge.
It's tough to deny the film's emotional impact. It's probably the most complete and satisfying movie Leigh has made since Secrets and Lies. Regardless of your opinion of the woman's actions, it's impossible not to feel for Vera as we see her well-ordered, simple life fall apart suddenly and dramatically. This is a movie without a villain. Detective Inspector Webster does his duty by arresting her, but we can see in his eyes that it pains him to perform it in this case. Even Broadbent's judge, when he pronounces sentence, shows signs of pity.
Vera Drake is vintage Leigh, relying more on the actors than the storyline. There's a lot of improvisation and all of the actors make contributions. The result is a sense of verisimilitude that many directors either don't aim for or fail to achieve. We believe that these characters and their circumstances are real. For those who don't like the low-key "slice-of-life" approach (no melodrama), Vera Drake's slow pace may be difficult to appreciate. But it's the unhurried vision that gives the movie its power. For those who have the patience to become absorbed in this kind of drama, Vera Drake offers a stunningly real character portrait whose image will linger long after the movie has faded.
Vera Drake (United Kingdom/France/New Zealand, 2004)
Cast: Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis, Peter Wight, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Eddie Marsan, Adrian Scarborough, Heather Craney, Jim Broadbent
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
Cinematography: Bill Pope
U.S. Distributor: Fine Line Features