Vera Drake

Mike Leigh specializes in directing family dramas. Because of the manner in which he writes his scripts-long rehearsal periods in which the cast improvises the dialog-he comes up with unique and uncommonly well rehearsed films.

In Vera Drake, English veteran actress Imelda Staunton plays the title role. She’s a stout working class Englishwoman with a good heart and a strong desire to help. The story takes place in London in 1950.

We see Vera’s willingness to help in the opening credits where she’s visiting a shut-in. It turns out there are several who depend on her, including her own mother. In addition Vera cleans houses for wealthy people. Through all this she is cheerful and understanding as if spreading good karma is easy for her, second nature. Vera’s wish to help leads her to performing abortions for indigent women in trouble. Her bedside manner is flawless; she has a knack for putting the girls at their ease. She’ll prattle on about tea and other things between asking them to take off their knickers and lay back. She has the calm assured manner of someone who’s done this a hundred times.

Unfortunately, one of her procedures goes wrong and the girl almost dies. The police quickly follow the trail back to Vera.

This isn’t an American film. The pace is very deliberate and the Cockney accents are thick. But I think this adds to it. We watch as the process of justice grinds to its inevitable conclusion. There are no plot twists here.

The story really unfolds on Imelda Staunton’s broad face. She is so expressive, from her joy at the beginning, seeing her family thrive despite their poverty, to the moment when the police come and she never smiles again. Finally it dissolves into blubbering tears as the consequences fall. It’s a masterful performance.

The movie itself is not without flaws. When you have actors writing you script, you’re going to get a lot of dialog. Plus, the character of Vera is too good. I can’t think of a single flaw. Maybe not telling her family is a flaw, but if she had they would have made her stop. There’s a subplot of the privileged daughter of one of the families whose house Vera cleans. The girl is raped and has her procedure in a clean hospital, performed by doctors who ask a lot of personal questions. It exists as a counterpoint to the sensitive care Vera provides, but it’s very heavy handed and has no bearing on the main plot. There are several other characters and subplots which should have been trimmed. This is, I believe, an artifact of the way Mike Leigh works.

Mike Leigh is obviously pro-choice. Vera is as sympathetic a character as you’re ever likely to encounter. But he doesn’t get strident about it, at least not here. The other side gets it’s say. The outrage of the doctor who treats the sick girl is real and it is a very good point.  Vera’s treatment at the police station is sensitive, performed by professionals who are doing their job, but are not unaware of the fact that this is a typical mother they are sending to jail. Judgement is witheld by the filmaker.

He leaves that, I suppose, up to you.

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