Directed by Mike Leigh. Starring Imelda Staunton, Richard Graham, Eddie Marsan, Anna Keaveney, Alex Kelly, Daniel Mays, Philip Davis. (2004, R, 125 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 21, 2005
With this period piece set in 1950 London, British filmmaker Mike Leigh delivers his best picture in some time, and with it seemingly aims to provoke conversation about the ethics of abortion. Strong performances (especially from lead Staunton) and immaculate period detail render Vera Drake unforgettable, seeping into your subconsciousness like some old newsreel never seen. Although the film is narratively schematic and has a definite point of view, it’s the humanity of its title character rather than the thorniness of the issue that is the film’s lasting grace. Vera Drake (Staunton) is a kindly neighborhood lady (although some might call her a busybody), who always has some time to spare for those less fortunate than she. She lives in a small housing project apartment with her husband and two adult children and works as a cleaning woman in well-to-do homes to which she’d never be invited otherwise. She stops in to visit invalid friends and her aged mother. But other than emptying their bedpans and offering them a spot of tea, Vera has little to offer these people but her dogged cheeriness. "Putting the kettle on" is her fix for just about everything. In fact, that’s the first thing she does when she comes to women’s apartments to perform abortions – in this case the water is not for tea but to sterilize her tools (a syringe and a cheese grater she uses to scrape the lye soap she uses as an abortificant) and provide the warm solution for her sudsy concoction. Vera just wants to help girls in need; she accepts no money for her deeds. Eventually, it all unravels when one of her girls becomes hospitalized, and the full force of the medical profession and the law come down on Vera. The film is almost divided into two halves: In the first half, we observe Vera at home with her loving family, at work among the rich, and engaged in her extracurricular activities; the second half is devoted to the consequences of her illegal actions. Vera’s curious personality and quiet sideline keep our attention throughout the first part, while the latter half grows increasingly dreary and bleak. Some of that derives from the film's period detail that makes everything about post-war London seem so worn and gray, but the dreariness of the individual caught up in the machinery of government serves as a good reminder for those of us here in the States. In a decade in which young, fertile women have no personal memory of the recent past when abortion was illegal throughout the U.S., Leigh’s tonal study can serve as a touchstone to those pre-Roe v. Wade times. In an era in which too many of us automatically accept women’s right to choose, Vera Drake reminds us that the time for complacency is not now. It is dreary to consider, but the issue of abortion is on the front burner again, and Vera Drake is a whistling kettle.