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Vera Drake

Reviewed By Todd LaPlace
Posted 10/08/05 06:24:10

"Bleak abortion films never looked so good."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It’s rough going into a movie like “Vera Drake.” Causing such a smash in Britain, it comes with high expectations, and combined with an abortion plot, the movie has big potential to be both incredible and an incredible flop. I never want to feel like I should love a movie just because its award bait. Luckily, in this case, Mike Leigh delivers. “Vera Drake,” a slow, period British piece about abortion is a romping good time.

The title heroine of Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake” may physically exist in 1950’s London, but she lives in a fantasy world of tea cozies and constant humming. In the midst of an economic depression, the working class Vera shuffles with a smile, always quick to compliment the aristocratic bosses that barely notice her existence. She gives up her free time to care for her ailing elderly mother and her surly disabled neighbor. And, oh yeah, she’s been helping “girls that are in trouble” for 20 years by performing back alley abortions with a syringe and soapy water.

Vera, beautifully played by Imelda Staunton, is something of an enigma. Almost sickeningly sweet with her family, Vera drapes herself in a stern all-business calm when induces the miscarriages. She enters the ramshackle homes of her clients, tells them to put on some hot water and remove their knickers, does her business and walks out the door. She offers them no post-procedure comfort, nor checks in to make sure it all went as planned. The abortions are another stop on her housekeeping rounds, and the pregnancies are just a mess to clean up.

It needs to be made clear that Leigh is not Michael Moore. He wastes no energy stuffing abortion rights down our throats or where have you. The story clearly has a vantage point — Vera is not the villain of the story — but even that is undercut by the warmth of her dissenting husband (Phil Davis) and the (reluctant) support of her disapproving son (Daniel Mays). In fact, the film seems to be more of a criticism of social class than abortion. Leigh runs a second parallel story about Susan (Sally Hawkins), the daughter of one of Vera’s wealthy clients. After being raped early in the film, it’s expected that Susan will seek out a quiet abortion, becoming one of Vera’s patrons. Because of her upper-class status, though, Susan skirts the law and is directed towards an expensive, but legal, abortion, one that most Londoners — who are still dealing with rationing and shortages — couldn’t even come close to affording.

The disconnection between the classes is heavily spelled out in the differences in Vera and Susan’s homes. Susan lives in a spacious world of privilege, one that is always bright, airy and emotionally cold. Her parents rarely acknowledge her existence — she’s able to sneak away for her weekend abortion without her parents even knowing where she’s gone. Contrarily, Vera lives in a dark, dimly lit, overcrowded, joyful apartment with her husband, son and daughter (the understated Alex Kelly). All four work menial jobs — housekeeper, mechanic, tailor and light-bulb factory worker — to help keep the family afloat, and they all join together after work for a sit-down dinner. Perhaps both depictions are over-simplified, but many of Vera’s lower-class patients don’t come from the same lower-class warmth as Vera. They sit alone in small, dank rooms waiting for some sort of salvation, and once Vera’s finished, they return to that solitude. Of course, we don’t get a view of that life. One girl slams the door in her boyfriend’s face rather than let him in, but we get no deeper insight in the hows or whys of these girls lives. Did he cheat on her? Did he rape her? Did she break his heart rather than deal with a pregnancy? Like Vera, we enter their lives for only as long as the procedure, then we leave again, never to return. The only true view of the lower-class we get is the Drake family, and we know they’re a happy bunch.

It’s interesting to see how quickly the smiles vanish when the police finally catch up to Vera. A Drake family gathering is interrupted by a knock on the door, and both the family and the film are altered. If you weren’t swayed by the first half, the second solidifies Staunton as the star of the picture. Where there was once a proud, meager woman, there is now only an emotional wreck, and in these key scenes, Staunton delivers a perfect, natural performance. You can almost see her shrinking as she sits in the small interrogation room, whispering her crimes to her unknowing husband.

Perhaps one of the more remarkable things about Leigh’s films is that the scripts are largely collaborative efforts. Leigh allows his actors to improvise much of their dialogue before compiling it into a script. In the case of “Vera Drake,” however, he did keep one secret from his actors — when the police raid the party, it is the first time the actors learn of the abortion part of the plot. It won’t come as quite a shock to us because the advertising has done a fine job of exposing Vera’s secret, but the film is so rich in the in-between moments of the Drake family, the exposing of the abortion hardly ruins a stellar picture.

I can’t help but wonder if such a film could have worked if it was done in America. For the most part, such 1950s period pieces end up as superficial, rose-colored views of a collective memory idea of 1950s America. Vera would probably end up being played by Susan Sarandon or worse, Cameron Diaz in ugly makeup. I don’t know if I would have been able to take this movie with a soundtrack by Velvet Revolver. I might have had to hurt somebody.

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