- The Washington Times - Friday, October 22, 2004

“Vera Drake,” one of the most accomplished movies in the career of the English filmmaker Mike Leigh, may be difficult to surpass if human interest, period evocation and superlative ensemble acting loom large in the next cycle of award competitions and presentations.

Mr. Leigh’s expertise with the comedy of domestic banality and family sentiment was memorably imprinted on “Life Is Sweet” and “Secrets & Lies.” This flair returns as a disarming asset to a case history of crime and punishment where you’d least expect to encounter them.

“Vera Drake” leaves the impression of having been torn from tabloid headlines that date from 1950 London. In fact, the story was contrived expressly for the screen, relying on Mr. Leigh’s distinctive methodology, which begins with prolonged discussions between director and actors, then ripens into improvisations and, ultimately, a script.

The title character is an unassuming, sweet-natured housewife, a working-class mum embodied with flawless modesty and sincerity by Imelda Staunton. Vera resides in a small flat with her husband, Stan (Phil Davis), a car mechanic who works in the shop owned by his brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough). Two grown children, Sid (Daniel Mays), an industrious tailor, and Ethel (Alex Kelly), a painfully shy and perhaps slightly retarded factory worker, also occupy the flat.

Vera is regarded as an angel of mercy. She cares for a bedridden mother and neighbor. She invites a taciturn young bachelor named Reg (Eddie Marsan) to share meals upon learning that his typical fare is “bread ‘n’ drippin’.” Her hunch that he might prove a match for the even more taciturn Ethel proves poignantly and humorously sound.

Between good deeds, Vera does housework at several upper-middle-class homes.

She also has a secret avocation: abortions. Vera has been performing them for so long that she can’t remember how she started when specifically asked — by a constable who discovers her clandestine trade (abortion remained criminal in England until 1967) when a young client becomes ill in the aftermath of Vera’s treatment, a carbolic soap solution she considers tried and true.

It appalls her to learn that the method may have caused harm. She has the gentlest of bedside manners, takes no cash for her services (a hard-bitten friend named Lillian charges two guineas for setting up the appointments) and looks upon the practice as her way of “helping girls out.” Her catchphrases reflect a genuinely warm, reassuring personality: “Go all floppy for me.” … “You’ll be right as rain.”… “I’ll put the kettle on.”

Despite her genuine solicitude, Vera is very much aware that she has been breaking the law. Profoundly ashamed when the police arrive, she can barely explain herself to Stan and other members of the family, stunned at the thought that anything disreputable could involve Vera. Indeed, she becomes an intense object of pity to the police as well as loved ones.

There is a an incongruous, funny holdout: Frank’s malicious wife, Joyce (Heather Craney in an irresistibly vain, contrary impersonation), who can’t stand the aura of impoverished goodness that surrounds her sister-in-law. Like the Virginia Mayo character in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” Miss Craney toughens the sentimental partialities of the movie by declining to share them.

“Vera Drake” isn’t a belated special pleader, calculated to extoll its heroine as a premature martyr for legalized abortion. The sense of immersion in lower-middle-class gentility, intimacy, inhibition, miscalculation and remorse is so pervasive and effective that it seems a conceptual extravagance when Mr. Leigh indulges a digression about the abortion experience of an upper-middle-class young woman by way of social contrast.

It’s easier to applaud the ensemble than any one cast member, but Alex Kelly contrives to mirror Miss Staunton in a weirdly phenomenal way while playing Vera’s seriously withdrawn child. Miss Craney also stands out by being hilariously out of sync with the norms of the family. The film may owe a poignant durability to the way she plays perverse and hardhearted.


TITLE: “Vera Drake”

RATING: R (Thematic concentration on abortion practices in England circa 1950; occasional profanity and considerable sexual and clinical candor)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Mike Leigh. Cinematography by Dick Pope. Production design by Eve Stewart. Costume design by Jacqueline Durran. Music by Andrew Dickson.

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes


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