VERA DRAKE (Mike Leigh, 2004)
Imelda Staunton stars as the title character in VERA DRAKE, the new film from writer-director Mike Leigh. Vera is the model of the post-World War II working class wife in 1950s London. She cleans houses to help with expenses and cares for the ill and the lonely in her neighborhood. From all appearances, she’s the sweetest, most innocent person in the world. Secretly, though, Vera “helps young girls with their problems”, or, in other words, performs illegal abortions.
There are probably few subjects more inflammatory for a film than abortion, but Leigh’s evenhanded treatment approaches the issue from a realistic perspective than a rhetorical one. Leigh doesn’t shy away from the actuality of what Vera does. He shows us the procedure and explains how it works. Some of the women depicted don’t think twice about choosing to have abortions while others experience great physical and emotional anguish. Leigh examines the public health and economic issues that affect why some women are able to terminate their pregnancies without any trouble from the law and why others must do so in hiding. Although those in opposing camps would have us believe otherwise, determining whether abortion should be legal is not simple. While I think Leigh has a specific viewpoint, his film is slippery to pin down and is stronger because of it. The toll of abortion and the consequences of its illegality are balanced, leaving us to decide what to make of it all. VERA DRAKE succeeds because Leigh is not interested in sloganeering but in looking at the human and moral cost. Vera is an apolitical character who, correctly or not, ignores the law to do what she believes is right for these women. Staunton’s tender performance puts a face on the struggle. Her conflict is society’s. VERA DRAKE’S expert framing mitigates the combustible subject matter.
(Review first aired on the February 15, 2005 NOW PLAYING)