Film review: Vera Drake (2004), directed by Mike Leigh
Set in working class London in 1950, Vera Drake is about the hard working and kind-hearted mother who acts as a part housekeeper to the well-to-do women, part social worker to sick and/or elderly women, and part illegal abortionist.
Vera (Imelda Staunton) lives with her husband, car mechanic Stan (Phil Davis), and their two children: outgoing Sid (Daniel Mays), who works as a tailor, and shy daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly), who works in a lightbulb factory and who her parents fear might never find a husband. Until Vera meets the equally shy young man, Reg (Eddie Marsan), who lives in a neighbouring flat on the estate and only eats bread and drippings for his tea every night. Being the charity worker that she is, Vera wants to give him a proper meal and invites him to dinner.
Vera’s sideline as an at-home abortionist, which her family is completely oblivious to, takes a wrong turn when one of the girls she helps gets violently ill after the treatment and ends up in hospital, and her mother (Lesley Sharp) has no other option but to admit to the abortion and tell the police everything she knows.
We also follow a side plot of Susan (Sally Hawkins), the daughter of one of the ladies Vera cleans for. Susan basically gets date raped and goes through the legal channels to get an abortion – so we understand why less effluent women chose Vera’s alternative. To do it legally, you need to have a doctor refer you to a psychiatrist, who then needs to evaluate your mental state (i.e. previous family history of mental illness, likelihood of a pregnancy leading the mother to commit suicide, and so on), and only then, and after paying 100 guineas, can she go to a clinic to have a legal abortion.
Shoutouts: Lesley Manville (Mrs Hale in North & South) as Mrs Wells, Vinette Robinson (Between the Sheets, Sherlock) as an anxious Jamaican girl, Chris O’Dowd as a customer of Sid’s, Sam Troughton (Much in BBC’s Robin Hood) as David), and Jim Broadbent as a judge.
It’s important to note that while Lily (Ruth Sheen), the woman who essentially works as Vera’s abortion pimp, takes two guineas as payment for the service, Vera never knows there is payment involved anywhere. Perhaps naive of her, especially since Lily seems quite well off, but that’s how it is. She helps women out of the goodness of her heart, not for financial gain. Considering two guineas is about £48 in today’s money, you can imagine why the legal option of 100 guineas was out of the question for a lot of women.
The sweet, growing relationship between the really socially awkward Ethel and Reg was delightful, in an uncomfortable sort of way. They were very sweet, but at the same time, awkward. But cute.
Vera Drake is a quiet and calm film, all about the characters and relationships, but it never feels slow, even if it’s slow-moving and fairly long to boot. It’s a social history lesson, family drama and women’s rights statement (women went to prison for helping others have abortions) all rolled up into one. A compelling watch with a stellar cast, and it was deservedly showered in awards when it came out. It might appeal more to women than men, but who cares?
4.5 out of 5 soapy syringes.