She smiles, offers her ailing mother a cuppa and checks in on a sick neighbour. She retains an amiable demeanor as she cleans the homes of her well-to-do clients, and then returns to her north end London home. She feeds her husband, George, a quiet-spoken salt of the earth type who works as a mechanic, and her two adult children. With pluck and quiet charm, she calms a frightened young woman and asks her to remove her knickers so she can perform an illegal abortion.
Vera Drake (2004)
Written and directed by Mike Leigh
Lesley Manville...Mrs Wells
Simon Chandler...Mr Wells
The Second World War has been over for half a decade, but rationing continues and the war’s effects on Great Britain linger. Perhaps no place in England feels it like London, grey and still struggling with the damage brought by the blitz. The people look and sound like survivors. They take life in stride, and savor its quiet, good moments. I’ve never been to 1950s London, but I felt convinced by Leigh’s attention to detail, to worn sweaters and flats and teacups. You can almost smell the petrol in Stan Drake’s garage.
People work in the factory and drink in the pub. And sometimes, women seek abortions, which aren’t really legal at that place and time.
The movie plays like an adaptation from a short story, with emphasis on the kinds of characters who rarely appear in Hollywood cinema. Despite the subject matter, which includes a brief rape scene, illegal abortions, life-threatening injuries, and a trial-- most of the film consists of small moments. Vera and George’s homely, quiet daughter develops a relationship with a likeable, nerdy loner. George’s brother and his younger wife struggle to conceive a child. Vera trudges from home to home, providing her various services with the same demeanor. She’s the picture of the sort of person who kept herself going while the bombs rained down on London. And she doesn’t take money for her abortion services; she believes she’s just helping out girls who’ve found themselves in trouble.
Imelda Staunton’s performance makes the film. She’s almost disturbingly good-natured and homespun. She uses a cheese grater to help prepare the soap solution used in the procedure. She does not take money, and, woefully naïve, she does not realize that Lily, a walking black market who coordinates Vera's services, profits from her work. Ruth Sheen plays Lily as unpleasant and harsh; visually, she's the spinster school marm's evil twin. The secondary characters are often simply drawn, but believably played. Most of the characters exhibit the reserve associated with the British stereotype, a fact which makes their emotional outbursts more powerful
I doubt the film will change anyone’s mind on the volatile subject of abortion. The central issue for those who oppose abortion, whether or not a fetus deserves rights, does not get much attention. The film, however, examines other important issues. A subplot shows that in 1950s England, as in many societies where abortion was/is illegal, well-heeled girls who knew the system could obtain them, safely. We also see postcard stories of the girls and women who come to Vera, and the film makes clear their motivations.
The plot also addresses the dangers attending illegal abortions. Most of Vera’s procedures succeed, but she has an incomplete understanding of safe medical procedures, and her clients face danger. Eventually, one young girl faces life-threatening consequences, and the police must investigate.
After a quietly dramatic arrest that portrays all parties-- the accused, her family, and the police-- sympathetically, the film begins to drag. Leigh's script makes little of Vera’s trial. By that point, however, we've nearly arrived at the conclusion.
In custody, Vera converses with two woman who have been imprisoned for performing abortions. They’re obviously more familiar with the criminal justice system, and likely more typical of the women who engaged in this practice at the time. Significantly, both have been incarerated for second offenses. Clearly, they felt a need to return to their work.
Vera Drake's ending won't satisfy everyone, but the film's strong performances should favorably impress most viewers.