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October 2004

By Julian Roman

Vera Drake

Distributor: Fine Line Features
Director: Mike Leigh
Producer: Simon Channing-Williams
Screenwriter: Mike Leigh
Cinematographer: Bill Pope
Cast: Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis, Peter Wight, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Eddie Marsan, Adrian Scarborough, Heather Craney, Jim Broadbent




Abortion...the word itself conjures up powerful feelings and emotions. Some believe it is an unforgivable sin to purposely terminate a pregnancy; while others think that a woman has an inherent right to choose the fate of her own body. It is a singularly divisive issue and there are few films with the nerve to tackle such a hot-button topic. Vera Drake, the latest film from British auteur Mike Leigh, is quite possibly the best abortion drama ever made. It is an emotional powerhouse, deeply moving and complex with an astonishing, bravura performance from lead actress Imelda Staunton. She captivates the screen like no other actor has done this year. Leigh, well known for his dramatic content and superb character development, has a significant achievement here. Vera Drake is an excellent film and could be a surprise winner at next year's Oscars.

The film is set in post-World War Two London. The exact time is never defined, but it alludes to the early 1950's. Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is a hardworking woman that tirelessly cares for everyone around her. She lives in a tiny apartment with her husband and two adult children. Vera spends her days cleaning the homes of wealthy people, but still has the time to check-in on elderly neighbors and offer tea to a lonely man. She is a gentle woman in a harsh time. Supplies are limited and everyone has to make do with whatever is available at the moment. Small things, like candy and a bag of sugar, are treasured items. Vera shares whatever she has and blissfully ignores the hardships that surround her. She believes that people must help each other get through life. This is the ideal that drives her greatest secret. Vera Drake, loving wife, mother, neighbor, and friend, is an abortionist. She performs the operations for free and at great personal risk though a secret network. Her patients are diverse women with different reasons for their choice of action. They do have one thing in common. They are all part of the working poor. Because even though abortion is technically illegal, rich women have the procedure in hospitals under a doctor's supervision. Poor women are at the mercy of back-alley abortionists. Vera avoids intrusive practices and takes great care in attending to her charges, but she is not a doctor and good intentions can lead to devastating results.

Mike Leigh takes an affirmative stance towards the practice of abortion in Vera Drake. His goal is to point out the consequences of having unsafe abortions and the inability of government to prevent them. He portrays a host of women from two distinct societies separated by money. They find themselves in the terrible situation of needing to end their pregnancy and must clandestinely find a way to do it. One character is raped by a suitor and cannot tell her parents the awful truth. She has considerable means and uses her money to safely procure help. The irony is that Vera Drake is the woman that cleans her parent's house. If she were in a different situation, Vera would have been her only option. This is the disparity of lifestyles that Leigh focuses on. The haves and have-nots are in demand of this service, but the treatment the women receive varies considerably with wealth. It is as much a social statement as it is a statement on reproductive rights.

The triumph of Leigh's screenplay is his ability to humanize Vera Drake. Anti-abortionists that disagree with Leigh on a philosophical level will be able to relate to Vera's character. She is not a saint, but a woman that has suffered and is essentially kind. Her goodwill dictates her actions. The problem is how that goodwill manifests itself into performing abortions. It is a criminal act and reprehensible to many. The hardest scenes in the film are when Vera has to tell her family the truth. It's like watching a bomb exploding in a living room. The shock of such a secret rattles everyone to the core. Her son, who has always loved his mother, is filled with contempt and betrayal. He doesn't understand her reasons and considers it a basic affront to human life. Her husband and daughter, who have relied on her for everything, cannot believe she successfully hid this from them for so many years. Watching them come to terms as a family is riveting. It is human drama of the highest order, superbly written and phenomenally acted.

The success of Vera Drake, while spectacularly crafted by Mike Leigh, rests on the shoulders of Imelda Staunton. Her talent is awe inspiring. She carries this film with a stratospheric acting performance, layered and nuanced. Imelda is popular in Great Britain for her theatre and television work, but a relative unknown in feature films. She is certainly a heralded find. Come award time, her name will be on the lists with the more popular actors. I think she's fantastic and would easily be my pick for the Best Actress Oscar.

Regardless of your stance on the subject, Vera Drake is a brilliant piece of filmmaking and must be admired as such. It is tightly shot with a sharp focus on set design. Mike Leigh avoids any grand, wide open vistas in the film. What we see are a lot of confined spaces, like rooms and stairwells. He wants to paint a vivid picture of the bleakness of everyday London life. This way the characters are always the central part of the story. There's nothing else to see, so you have to pay attention to what they're doing. Leigh is very stringent in his editing. Most scenes are played out in a theatrical manner with few cut-aways. He also uses the camera dolly to great effect, skillfully negotiating between characters and settings. Leigh is a seasoned pro and it's evident in every frame of this movie.

I'm curious about the controversy, if any, this film will spawn. It has a universal theme, but different countries have different attitudes to the practice of abortion. Here in the United States, it is a firebrand issue that ignites a lot of contention. Vera Drake will have supporters and detractors because of the subject matter. I just hope that it can be viewed and respected as artwork, because it certainly is one of the best films of the year.