Mike Leigh’s new film “Vera Drake” vividly evokes the working class world of 1950’s England, where abortion was only available legally for the wealthy. Similar to last year’s Mystic River, it ambles along with an attention to detail and character that slowly draws you into its world, making the denouement devastating. “Vera Drake” is, however, a much more understated piece of work. The title character (Imelda Staunton) is a cleaning woman who “helps people.” At first, we see her bringing sick neighbors tea and caring for her aging mother. But this is not all. Vera has a secret: she performs illegal abortions for poor women (for which she accepts no money).
Vera lives with her mechanic husband, Stan (Phil Davis), and her grown children, and her attempts to find a husband for her awkward daughter is a subplot that provides some of the film’s few light moments. Vera is such a saintly character that only the intense realism of the film’s setting and the strength of Staunton’s performance keep her believable. The film slowly shifts from a social sketch of Vera’s world to a full-fledged tragedy.
“She’s a little busybody,” one character remarks of Vera. “She’s going to get trouble one of these days.” And indeed she does, when one of her patients becomes seriously ill and the hospital begins to ask questions. Leigh treats the abortions Vera performs as acts of compassion for women with no other choice, most of whom are scared, poor, and too young or too old. The real target of Leigh’s wrath is the hypocritical British medical establishment, emphasized when the wealthy daughter of Vera’s employer procures a legal, but expensive, abortion after being raped. Vera is not given a free pass; her procedures are primitive and dangerous. Politically, the film is pro-choice, but is not a blunt polemic. Leigh also avoids several current issues surrounding abortion by setting his film in 1950.
“Vera Drake” is sometimes a grim and uncompromising film, but its sadness is relieved by the scenes of Vera’s genuinely happy family and her unending generosity. It is a touching and compassionate film that will certainly be remembered during the awards season.