Robin CliffordWriter/director Mike Leigh ("All or Nothing," "Topsy Turvy"), champion of Britain's working class, travels back to 1950 and an England that is still recovering from the devastation of WWII. As young men trade packs of Players for high quality nylons, the young women they woo are faced with the age-old problem of unwanted pregnancy. The upper classes have the money to safely and discreetly solve these problems, but those without depend on illegal services carried out by women like "Vera Drake."
Leigh's Venice film festival Gold Lion and Best Actress winner offers up its heroine as a deluded saint, an "old dearie" made sacrificial victim to England's class system. Vera (Imelda Staunton, "Shakespeare in Love") is the kindest of simple souls, a woman quick with a 'cuppa' who tends to an extended family as part of her daily rounds. Her soothing words and desire for the happiness of others are so essential to her being, that it takes her arrest to turn her thinking inwards, and even then, it is not clear that Vera ever considers what she leaves behind in her wake.
Vera's day consists of cleaning house for several well-to-do families, checking up on disabled war vet George (Richard Graham, "Titanic") while his wife is at work and tending to her elderly mother. she invites an awkward young bachelor, Reg (Eddie Marsan, "21 Grams"), for supper with her even more socially inept daughter Ethel's (Alex Kelly, "All or Nothing") future in mind and listens to her husband Stan's (Phil Davis, "Nicholas Nickleby") gradually revealed war recollections in bed at night. Unbeknownst to her family, occasionally she meets her friend Lily (Ruth Sheen, "All or Nothing") who refers her to women who need 'helping out.' Unbeknownst to Vera, Lily is a venal black marketeer who charges these women for Vera's services.
"Vera Drake" excels in its brilliant ensemble acting, production designer Eve Stewart ("Topsy Turvy"), costume designer Jacqueline Durran ("All or Nothing") and Oscar winning hair and makeup designer Christine Blundell's keen period details and Leigh's truthfully observed writing and orchestration. "Vera Drake" is less a pro-choice essay than it is a portrait of a society during a fragile era. Leigh keeps class structure front and center, perpetually picturing Vera ascending and descending staircases (notably, she only ascends in prison, raising herself above those other abortionists whose clients actually died). A subplot follows the fate of Susan (Sally Hawkins, "All or Nothing"), the daughter of one of Vera's wealthy clients who deals with the byproduct of date rape with a carefully scripted avoidance of the word abortion that lands her in a cushy weekend retreat that provides her with one.
Ironically, Vera's visits to single young women and overwrought mothers also delicately step around the facts. 'Helping someone out' with her rubber syringe, cheese grater, bar of carbolic soap and bottle of disinfectant, Vera answers anxious questions about what, exactly, comes next by telling the women that in a day or two 'everything will come away.' A quick smile and a closed door leaves a frightened woman behind her, just as her cheery admonition to George not to get into trouble leaves a man alone in a wheelchair. On a later, more chilling visit, Vera finds George's wife Ivy (Wendy Nottingham, "Topsy Turvy") at home, bedridden with depression, and offers platitudes about unsympathetic bosses. Vera's unthinking reassurances are all the social service England's afflicted struggle by with.
Leigh and his actors also expertly convey the transition from wartime into the modern age. Stan and Reg connect when Reg recalls losing his mother during the Blitz in 1941 on their old street. 'I remember that bomb,' Stan and Vera's son Sid (Daniel Mays, "All or Nothing") exclaims, talking about the explosive as if it were a family member in order to claim a part in his elders' history. Meanwhile, Stan's older brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough, "Gosford Park"), who owns the garage Stan works at, endures the manipulative demands of his younger, pretty wife Joyce (Heather Craney, "All or Nothing"), who yearns for a washing machine and gets pregnant to assure herself of one. Sid and Joyce represent the new, more selfish generation.
Staunton brings to life the indomitable spirit of a bygone, simpler age, yet her performance is likely to be noted for the one, awful moment when that spirit is broken. During the family's life-affirming celebration of Reg and Ethel's engagement and Joyce's impending motherhood, the police arrive and Vera immediately knows why they've come. Staunton extinguishes the light in her eyes and her face slowly falls and the ever-cheerful Vera never shows that side of herself again. Equally fine is Phil Davis, looking the epitome of a well-scrubbed English vet. His war nightmares are comforted by the home the wife he adores has given him, and, while he cannot really comprehend the secret she's kept from him nor the situation she faces, his loyalty to her is unflagging. Eddie Marsan and Alex Kelly have a heartbreakingly funny courtship, two people destined to be looked over if not for Vera's gentle nudge. The two actors are spot on as is "All or Nothing's" standout Ruth Sheen, her despicable Lily the polar opposite of "Nothing's" optimistic Maureen.
As is usual with a Leigh ensemble, even the smallest roles are exquisitely cast. "Naked's" security guard, Peter Wight, makes a late showing as the compassionate Det. Inspector Webster, assisted by the equally caring Helen Coker ("All or Nothing") as a Women's Police Constable. "Topsy Turvy" star Allan Corduner does a sly turn as Susan's referred psychiatrist while "All or Nothing" star Lesley Manville portrays the girl's mother as a woman whose life consists of wearing pearls and twinsets to sit on the couch flipping through magazines and chain smoking. Oscar winner Jim Broadbent appears as the judge.
Yet for all its virtues, there is a top note of sentimentality to "Vera Drake," especially its heroine. Claude Chabrol's masterful "Story of Women" provides a more clear-eyed look at the subject of an abortionist in the WWII era. "Vera Drake" is Mike Leigh's perverse brand of optimism shot through with Terrence Davies style nostalgia.
Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is a giving woman whose dedication to her family and friends makes her an admired figure in her blue-collar neighborhood. But, her kindness extends to others, too, and she will help any young woman who finds herself in trouble and alone. Even though she is gentle and kind, she is also breaking the law. Suddenly, her benevolence turns criminal when the police find out the truth about Vera Drake.”
Mike Leigh has always dealt with the nitty gritty of Brit blue-collar life (excepting “Topsy-Turvy,” of course) with such films as “Naked,” “Secrets & Lies” and “Career Girls.” He continues this personal look at working-class existence with his 1950 period piece about a woman many would castigate as an illegal abortionist. But, Vera, who had a secret past experience being alone and pregnant, sees herself as a person who can help a young woman in trouble when no-one else, especially the system, will.
Leigh, who wrote the script (such as it is – the director is renowned for giving his actors free reign to improvise their characters), creates a working-class world of 1950 England following the days in the life of the title character. Vera, a housekeeper for several wealthy clients, makes her daily rounds in the neighborhood, visiting her aging mother, an invalid neighbor and anyone else who needs help. She drops by the flat of one troubled young woman and gently offers to “put on the kettle.” Very soon, though, we learn that it’s not tea being made.
Once Vera’s vocation as the kind savior who gives young women a chance to recapture their lives is established, we follow her through her matter-of-fact days as an abortionist. She is visited by her friend, Lily (Ruth Sheen), who offers to sell Vera black market goods and gives her a slip of paper with the address of Vera’s next patient. With every visit and every patient, Vera’s gentleness and assurances that everything will be all right, dear” resonates through the blue-collar town. That is, until one day and for the first time in 20 years, something goes wrong with a patient. Suddenly, the police are at her doorstep and the life that Vera Drake knew so well vanishes.
Vera Drake” is languidly paced, almost poetic slice of working-class life in post-World War II Britain. The camera, expertly handled by long-time Leigh collaborator, Dick Pope, follows Vera through her rounds, through her working day and to her home where she prepares supper for her husband, Stan (Philip Davis), son, Sid (Daniel Mays) and daughter, Ethel (Alex Kelly). During the course of one of her days, Vera invites bachelor neighbor, Reg (Eddie Marsen) to dinner and a subtle bit of matchmaking takes place, over time, between Ethel and Reg. During Christmas dinner with her family, Reg, and Stan’s brother and wife, Frankie and Joyce (Adrian Scarborough and Heather Craney), there is a knock at the door and the Drakes’ world is turned upside down.
Imelda Staunton is the picture of the “old dearie” that you can only find, it seem, in working-class neighborhoods in England. She bustles about with her seemingly unlimited energy and Staunton plays Vera to perfection. When the police arrive and Vera realizes what it means, the actress’s face transforms from happiness to realization that her kindness has put her in deep trouble. There is a look of sadness, rather than anxiety, in her eyes as she sees what will be. In one of the film’s most riveting moments, Vera, in the police station, must turn over all her possessions, including the wedding band that has never left her ring finger. The camera moves from Vera’s anguished face to a close up of her hand as she reluctantly and slowly removes her cherished symbol of her marriage to Stan. Tears welled in my eyes as I watched this scene unfold.
Once the change in story takes place, “Vera Drake” takes on a different dynamic as the system takes charge and Vera’s long time record of helping young woman takes on a different light in the eyes of the law. From this point on, the film loses the warm happiness of Vera’s life and the cold, clinical efficiency of British law takes over, leaving Vera as a broken-willed woman whose main reaction, for the remainder of the film, is to have her eyes well up with tears.
The supporting cast is a feast of fine actors, mostly unknown to American auds, giving believable and often sympathetic performances. Philip Davis is outstanding as Vera’s husband, Stan. The love he feels for Vera is palpable and, though unaware of his wife’s secret vocation until her arrest, you know he will standby his woman, no matter what happens. Adrian Staunton, as Frankie, is perfectly cast in appearance and tone as Stan’s loyal brother and business partner. Daniel Mays is dead on as the dandy son who is most shocked by Vera’s secret. Alex Kelly gives a wonderful arc to her performance as daughter Ethel, a dowdy young woman destined to spinsterhood – until the arrival of Eddie Marsen’s Reg. Marsen puts a soft-spoken and gentle spin on his character who, despite the sudden controversy in the Drake household, has become a part of a family. Peter Wight gives a 3D perf as the police inspector who arrests Vera. Even tiny roles, like Helen Coker as the female police constable accompanying Vera through the ordeal of arrest, are fully filled.
Other techs, such as costume and set design by Jacqueline Duran, are all capably handled.
Vera Drake” is a very moving film, but its change in direction deflates the fully formed world created before Vera’s arrest. It is well crafted throughout and the exemplary cast raises it up a notch. The pro-choice banner of the film is firmly attached to its sleeve. I give it a B.
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