Mike Leigh’s latest film is a beautifully crafted and heartbreaking tale of a cleaner leading a secret double life as an abortionist in 1950s London.
But if you are expecting a preachy film on the issue of abortion then you will be mistaken. Instead we have an engrossing study of characters caught up in events out of their control. It’s portrayal of working class Londoners is detailed without ever being patronizing and it skilfully focuses on the emotional fallout created by the abortion laws rather than the legal question itself. Viewers are confronted with the issue but not necessarily from the angle you might expect.
The story begins with an extended snapshot of Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) as she juggles her work as a housewife, cleaner and abortionist. Her home life is modest but content. She has a genuinely loving husband (Phil Davis) and is mother to an extrovert son (Daniel Mays) and an introverted daughter (Alex Kelly). At work she cleans the houses of wealthier Londoners before helping a friend (Ruth Sheen) conduct black market abortions. There is also a subplot involving a rape victim named Susan (Sally Hawkins) who is from one of the houses Vera cleans. Whilst the two plot strands never really converge they reflect one another and highlight the suffering women from both classes had to endure.
Like much of Leigh’s work the acting is uniformly excellent and in the title role Imelda Staunton gives one of the best performances of this or any other year. Her portrayal of a genuinely compassionate and kind woman brought down by her desire to help others is mesmerising. She is utterly convincing as a 1950s housewife but it is in the second half of the film that her performance reaches another level. As events take an unfortunate, though inevitable, turn for the worse Vera sees her genuinely good intentions slowly destroy her life. It makes for riveting, if painful, viewing and her slow burning anguish lives on long after the film has ended.
Aside from the acting and the immaculate recreation of 1950s London, the real strength of Vera Drake is that it doesn’t seek to simplify the issue of abortion. It would be easy to make a polemic for either side of the debate but Mike Leigh has done something much more challenging and rewarding. He shows the real dangers of illegal abortions but also the legal context in which they flourished. The film also wisely avoids demonising any of its major characters that are either breaking or enforcing the laws of the time. The detective (Peter Wight) who arrests Vera is no villain, he is simply a man dedicated to enforcing the law and preventing harmful abortions. Unlike the laws of the time it portrays Vera Drake is a film full of subtlety and compassion.
> Official Site
> IMDb Link
> Observer Interview with Director Mike Leigh
> Guardian Interview with Imelda Staunton
> Filmmaker Magazine Interview with Mike Leigh
> Mike Leigh ‘Masterclass’ on Film Four