Lowdown: A simple hard working woman gets in trouble with the law over abortions in post war England.
My first proper encounter with director Mike Leigh was through the laserdisc of his 1996 film, Secrets & Lies. The guy has a unique style: His films are distinctively British, made of very long scenes with not much in the way of cuts, and are powered by overall simple themes and simple cinematic techniques. This sets the stage for the actors to do their acting, probably with a lot of improvisations too. It all feels a lot like a play.
2004’s Vera Drake still shares a lot of these themes but it’s also different. Slightly. The main difference is the scenes being shorter and the more occasional use of cuts. It is, however, an exercise in relativism: we are still dealing with a director that throws the burden of things down the actors, often delaying the cut long past the point where the vast majority of directors would do it. Luckily for Leigh, he is able to come up with actors that supply the goods.
Vera Drake takes place in 1950 London. At its core it follows a hard working, low means family with Vera (Imelda Staunton) in the center. Vera is a hard working angel: she cleans the houses of affluent upper class families for a living, but despite her hard work she doesn’t neglect her ill old mother and other unrelated people in need of help and food. And because Vera is such a generous and good hearted person, she secretly does favors for London women in need of an abortion: she has her abortion kit, and when – through a coordinator - she learns of someone in dire circumstances due to an unplanned pregnancy, she helps the woman abort without asking for anything in return.
By showing us what takes place with a rich client of Vera Drake’s, the film cleverly compares between the way abortions take place at the upper classes, where a legal abortion can be afforded, and the sheer brutality that women of the lower classes had to face in order to continue being able to contend with life’s already harsh demands. Eventually, though, things go wrong for one of Vera’s abortions, and the law catches up with her.
Vera Drake is memorable for its seemingly very authentic portrayal of post war England and for its very authentic portrayal of the larger Drake family. The people are simpletons, quite dumb and ignorant by contemporary standards, but you can still see the well meaning ones from the selfish; it is this very simplicity that enhances the point of the film. Indeed, the morality of the abortion act is never truly discussed; it is the way people handle the harshness of reality that is at the core of the film.
Very character driven, Vera Drake solid acting provides a very moving and memorable experience. It’s not conventional cinema because it borrows a lot from the world of theater, but the combination makes for a very memorable experience (if quite depressing, too).
Keynote scenes: As mentioned, cuts are often way overdue. Only compared to what we have been trained to accept though; they are not really overdue. This does, however, lead to prolonged scenes that render the viewer uncomfortable, such as lengthy scenes where we watch a major character do nothing but cry upon learning some harsh bit of news. The uncomfortable feeling is also boosted by Leigh sticking the camera right up the actor's face.
Overall: Requires the right sort of mood (one that is ready to be depressed), but oozes with undeniable quality. 4 out of 5 stars.