Vera Drake


U.K. / 2004 / English

Directed by Mike Leigh

With Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis, Eddie Marsan

Still from 'Vera Drake'Jaunty, sturdy, and humming with energy, Vera Drake is a middle-aged woman who works as a maid in rich people’s homes and, in her spare time, pays daily visits to invalid neighbors and her senile mother, and manages to care for her entire family back at home as well. She lives with her husband, Stan, and their two grown children, in a council estate that is like looking at the one in which director Leigh set his previous film All or Nothing (2002), but fifty years in the past. People don’t need to lock up their bicycles, and every exterior shot is fringed in the flat, gray smog of postwar London. Drake also keeps a makeshift kit hidden in her bedroom for performing abortions, and she renders that service to women looking for a way out of their pregnancies. Vera regularly meets with her friend Lily, who provides her with snappy Cockney conversation, contraband sugar, and the addresses of clients in need of her assistance.

Stan runs a mechanic shop with his upwardly mobile brother Frank, who lives in a semidetached suburban home with his wife Joyce. The brother and sister-in-law represent the newer, more materialistic England of washing machines and a succession of cars, so frantically satirized in Leigh’s High Hopes (1988). Meanwhile Stan and Vera and their family are cheery, earnest, and delightful, limited by the rationing that continued even after the war, and exuding at all hours the warmth of teatimes and Christmas puddings. Every scene in their cramped apartment, with its Edwardian furniture and sallow lamplight, is bristling with life.

The son, Sid, is a chirpy, fastidious young man who works in a tailor shop by day and goes swing dancing with friends at night. The daughter, Ethel, is quite the opposite, a socially maladroit woman who works in a light bulb factory, and who appears quiet and uneasy around other people. She begins a sweetly understated courtship after Vera invites Reg, a similarly awkward bachelor, over for dinner, and Ethel offers to mend his trousers for him. Reg has no family to speak of, and the Drakes take him under their wing with characteristic ease and generosity. Leigh’s well-known process of working with his actors for weeks of improvisation to build a script is here at its most seamlessly true, so textured and natural are the performances, so rich and acutely tangible are the character’s moods.

Still from 'Vera Drake'Vera’s clients in her covert medical rounds are like a cross-section of proletarian femininity, more afraid of their own families’ disapproval than of the illegality of procuring a termination. There is an insecure young woman, still unsure if she wants to keep her baby; a lonesome and destitute immigrant from the Caribbean; a woman already stuck with seven children and a husband in a crowded hovel of a flat. But Vera is an old hand at what she does, and having seen it all before, administers to them with her usual bustling and matronly gentleness. But she keeps it not too personal as well, bringing a clinical efficiency to the completion of her tasks, in much the same way that she polishes the hearths of the wealthy. At the same time Leigh shows the parallel story of an upper class woman named Susan, whose mother Vera works for, and who becomes pregnant after a young man rapes her while they are on a date together. She would never think to contact someone like Lily for help, and instead goes to a proper doctor to have the procedure.

No one in the close-knit family knows about what Vera does on the side. She is happy to be performing what she thinks is a free service to women who otherwise have no options. As it turns out Lily has been accepting money as the fixer, something that Vera would absolutely oppose if she knew of it. Abortion did not become legal in Britain until more than fifteen years after this film is set, and the risk is perhaps higher than either of them choose to acknowledge. It is Christmas, Reg has just proposed to Ethel, and Frank and Joyce have announced that they’re going to have a baby. And then the police knock on their door; one of the girls whom Vera has “helped out” has nearly died in the hospital. In an instant the unsuspecting family’s contentment cracks and gives way to dumbfounded silence. Even Sid is at a loss for words.

The members of the family each respond in different ways. Stan’s reaction is to be devastated but he stands by Vera. He and Frank grew up in an orphanage, and one gets the feeling that he is not altogether in disagreement with what his wife has been doing. A debate begins to arise in the family about the morality of abortion, but it doesn’t lead anywhere, so trying is the situation and so jarring the dose of unpleasant reality that has been brought into their home. It is Reg, who came from a poor background, who speaks up in her defense, but not everyone is convinced that she is in the right. Vera is of course, shattered, her personality a hollow effigy of what it once was. All along she thought that she was performing good deeds, and now she is being called a criminal.

Still from 'Vera Drake'As is often the case in Leigh’s work, the film looks at many factors in peoples’ situations, avoiding overt caricature to explore various shades of British society. The wealthy young woman, Susan, has to secretively seek assistance, being subjected to humiliating scrutiny first from a doctor and then a psychiatrist, all the while feeling almost too ashamed of her predicament to speak. The sad and quite damaging bashfulness of the rich people when it comes to discussing sexual matters makes the relative openness of the working class characters look enviable, even though sex is hardly a frequent topic of conversation for them either. But there is, in appearance, a closer bond between the working women, whereas Susan is isolated and forever saddled with the burden of maintaining face. Not a mention is made of retribution for the man who forced himself upon her. Meanwhile her mother, who has also gotten pregnant, takes the seemingly easy step of having Vera perform the abortion. The maid, still very much in downcast maid mode, readies her equipment while the rich employer sips martinis with her friend, treating the whole thing as a droll afternoon spent slumming it.

The topic of abortion has cropped up often in Leigh’s films, and one may get the sense, upon watching them, that his characters act as mouthpieces for his own opinions. While in Vera Drake it is very much central to the story, this may also be the least direct and moralizing treatment he has accorded it to date. It is a politicized film, but far from polemic, it is rich, gentle, and deeply expressed, with sincere commentary on family and culture forming its most engaging passages. It demonstrates, more than tells, how stultifying social mores exist and are codified into something like the process of the law, which is meant to be fair and egalitarian. So many sides to the argument and so many stories are shown in brief, simply following Vera throughout her day, seeing her loved ones, her employers and clientele. The film favors a broad examination of society over delivering a clear opinion of abortion itself. Leigh does not pass judgment on the morality of the choices of individuals as much as hold up to the light an out-of-balance system that essentially legalized the procedure for the rich but virtually condemned the poor to unsafe, illicit house calls from untrained women. It is not the people involved who are wrong, Leigh suggests. Rather it is the ancient delirium of the class structure, gender inequality, and a harsh and unfeeling legal system that is the true deviation.


2 Responses to “Vera Drake”

  1. Mary Ann said

    Sounds like a great and forceful movie!

  2. chaiwalla said

    It surely is. What’s most remarkable about it is how subtly but convincingly it casts its spell. One of my absolute favorites from an ever-beguiling director.

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