Movie review by Greg Carlson
Mike Leigh is a tremendous talent as a filmmaker, and his latest feature “Vera Drake” can be every bit as gripping and moving as the best moments from “Naked,” “Secrets & Lies,” or “Topsy-Turvy.” Set in London in 1950, Leigh’s film at first seems calculatingly and rigorously structured, but eventually the director’s humanism overtakes the politically charged material to find in favor of the strong title character, a middle-aged, working-class housewife who secretly performs underground abortions. While the subject matter is guaranteed to arouse passionate feelings in audience members, Leigh has as much to say about some of his pet themes (like class, the peculiar nature of family, and the keeping of secrets) as he does about one of the most divisive issues in society.
In a terrific, Academy Award-nominated performance, Imelda Staunton plays Vera as the epitome of self-sacrifice and hard work. Toiling as a domestic in the opulent homes of the wealthy, Vera never fails to make dinner for her family or tend to her aged mother. Cheerful and kindhearted, Vera shares a loving relationship with husband Stan (Phil Davis), who works side by side with his brother as an auto mechanic. Vera and Stan are the parents of grown children Sid (Daniel Mays), a happy-go-lucky tailor and Ethel (Alex Kelly), a painfully timid wallflower who has managed to catch the eye of pathetic Reg (Eddie Marsan), a young man Vera has invited to dinner.
Leigh presents Vera’s hidden occupation with the same kind of no-nonsense, matter of fact care and attention to detail that Vera brings to her paying jobs. It is immediately clear that Vera performs abortions because she truly believes that she is helping the women who seek out her services, and Leigh does not flinch from this view. The director chooses to maintain a certain distance from any internal deliberation that Vera experiences, and the result is complex: we must speculate as to why Vera has chosen her particular path. That ambiguity will certainly please some viewers and frustrate others.
“Vera Drake” is at its best when it is ruminating on the tiniest details of the lives of its characters. Leigh is discreet but not shy about depicting Vera in the act of providing abortions (the several instances have a fascinating, montage-like effect as they show myriad circumstances, each set unique), but just as much time is spent exploring the Drake household. In accordance with the mechanics of the plot, the gears make a grinding shift halfway through, and the film only slightly falters in drawing out the fate of Vera once she has entered the confusing labyrinth of the legal system.
Leigh sets up one interesting counterpoint to Vera’s illegal operations. The daughter of one of Vera’s employers is raped by a suitor, and Leigh weaves a parallel story thread that is surprising in the way it handles the seemingly convergent plotlines. Rather than resort to a more obvious kind of resolution, Leigh takes the opportunity to explore the alternative to Vera’s method or pregnancy termination. While this diversion could have used one more scene to strengthen its argument, Leigh underlines his point about class and power. Leigh concludes his film with a dedication to his parents, a doctor and a midwife, and by the time the credits roll, another of the filmmaker’s powerful tales has delivered much food for thought.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/14/05.