I first saw Vera Drake months ago and the only thing I knew about it was that it was the latest film from Mike Leigh, the man behind Secrets & Lies and Topsy-Turvy. Given my job description, it is a rare treat to see a movie without having a pretty good idea of what to expect. If you wish to experience Vera Drake that way, you had best stop reading now, because there is no way to write about it without divulging a key fact about the lead character.
So, if you're a purist, go away now. Shoo!
Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is a sweet, small dumpling of a woman living with her working-class family in post-war London. The year is 1950 and money is tight in the Drake's neighborhood. Never mind, though, because everybody does their best. Vera cleans the houses of the more well-to-do. In her off hours, she tends to her immediate family with unwavering devotion and helps any neighbor in need. She is a ray of sunlight in a bleak world.
Her husband Stan (Phil Davis), a war veteran, works as a mechanic at a garage owned by his brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough), whose wife Joyce (Heather Craney) is such a snob. Vera and Stan's charming son Sid (Daniel Mays) works at the tailor's shop and their less social daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) tests light bulbs for a living. Someday she'll likely marry Reg (Eddie Marsan), a sad bachelor who lives near by.
What Stan, Sid, Ethel, Frank, poor Reg and Joyce the snob would never guess is that Vera has been secretly performing abortions for nearly 20 years. Don't use that word, though. Vera doesn't consider herself an abortionist. She simply helps out girls who would otherwise end up in the hands of butchers. She doesn't charge for her services, either. All she is trying to do is make a horrible situation a bit less horrible for each of the women.
On the other hand, Vera's old friend Lily (Ruth Sheen), who sells the black market items needed for the procedures and connects Vera with the women in need of her services, is nothing but a money-grubber trafficking in human misery.
So there's the basic situation. Needless to say, the truth comes out eventually and all hell breaks loose. I won't tell you about any of that.
Mike Leigh is careful to keep his opinion to himself, even though there is little doubt where his sympathies lie. The second half of the film includes plenty of pointed attacks on abortion. In the first half, Leigh inserts a parallel storyline about Susan (Sally Hawkins), a young woman living in one of the posh homes that Vera cleans. When she becomes pregnant after being raped, the money is there for her to avoid the anti-abortion laws in style, traveling to have the procedure done safely and discreetly.
For the impoverished women, there is no such option. If they fail to find a kindly soul like Vera, their only other choice will be the butchers.
Or, of course, actually having the child.
The film works because Leigh recreates 1950 working-class London with such astounding realism that, despite the gloominess, we are drawn in. A large part of the magic comes from the cast, especially leading lady Imelda Staunton, who absolutely deserves the Best Actress Oscar nomination she will receive next Tuesday.
Regardless of your stance on abortion, Vera Drake will leave you with plenty to talk about after the closing credits roll.