Vera Drake (2004)

2004-10-10 (Limited release)

Note: Some plot points revealed below.

The point about Vera is that there have always been Veras, in all societies, everywhere… the woman you go to, quietly, and do what is very straightforward, which is to introduce an alien body into the uterus and cause an abortion… The question, obviously, is if that’s what you want, or whether in the end, if it’s better to happen cleanly and healthily?
— Mike Leigh, IndieWire

Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) has a good life. Living among the dark ruins of working-class London in 1950, she each day busies herself with the details of helping others. At the start of Mike Leigh’s latest film detailing the virtues and complexities of the underclass, Vera first appears mid-routine. Vera’s trundling through the streets and alleys that take her from task to task: she makes tea for this shut-in, cleans up someone else’s flat, brings milk to another, all the while humming to herself, happy in her routine.

And then she heads home, a small, frugally decorated apartment where she cooks for her family — good man husband Stan (Phil Davis), ambitious son Sid (Daniel Mays), and painfully introverted daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) — at ease in her limited material existence, rich in her trusting emotional life. Pleased to bring yet another stray into her sphere of influence, Vera invites the lonely, self-conscious war veteran Reg (Eddie Marsan) home for dinner. They discuss the war, bombs they remember, people they’ve lost, as the men smoke their post-meal cigarettes and the women watch. The war has disturbed all of their lives intensely, and if they don’t quite have the words to express their trauma, they do have a sense of shared experience. As in all of Leigh’s films, his actors have here contributed to the script and characterizations, so all feel lived in, low-key, and familiar. As Reg catches shy Ethel’s eye, Vera smiles warmly. This little bit of business is going about as well as she might have hoped.

The next day, Sid goes to measure suits at his place of employment (he’s a tailor); Ethel stands on the assembly line at the light bulb factory where she works, testing filaments; and Stan fixes cars at the garage he shares with his brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough), where they discuss Stan’s good fortune, as Vera has “a heart of gold.” Vera heads off again, but on this day each week, her routine is altered slightly, as she sets to helping girls who are “in trouble.”

This turn in Vera Drake comes quietly and matter-of-factly. She puts the kettle on, scrubs her hands, and fixes up her special enema, then instructs her clients, one by one, to take their knickers off, then “Go all floppy for me.” Confused and afraid, more than one girl is unsure what this means. “When you feel full,” she soothes, “we’ll stop.” Repeatedly, Vera remains bright and euphemistic, trying to make the experience as un-traumatic as she can. Having worked on Fridays as an abortionist for years, she doesn’t see the harm in it. This even though her work is strictly illegal and her methods not precisely “scientific.” She calms her girls, tells them exactly what to do: stay in bed until the concoction takes effect, at which point they need to head to the toilet, where “it will all come away.”

Vera’s part in all this is clearly profound, but she treats it as yet another unpaying job, one of the many she toils at each day. Her appointments are scheduled by longtime intermediary Lily (Ruth Sheen), who takes money for the service, though she doesn’t tell Vera this and even has Vera paying her (discount) for sugar and sardines. Lily — who also calls one Jamaican client “that darkie,” as per the custom of her time and place — might allow viewers to feel increased sympathetic toward Vera, whose simple, practical approach to her work appears so unselfish. That’s not to say that Vera has no sense of her function in a culture where poor girls have no access to private sanitariums and expensive doctors.

The film conveniently illustrates this for you by revealing the secondary story of a rich girl Susan (Sally Hawkins), whose parents’ home Vera cleans weekly. When Susan is raped by a surly date whom she naively accompanies to his rooms, she’s able to go to a doctor, declare her intention to kill herself, and so earn the wealthy class’ right to abortion in an institution. Vera’s customers have no such access of course, and so they either do commit suicide, give up their babies for adoption, raise more children than they can handle, or seek out illegal abortions. Given these choices, sweet-faced, diminutive Vera looks like a safe, imaginable option.

Leigh’s film is interested in moral and political complexities, as these are highlighted by a legal “system,” and especially by its clumsy handling of this individual case (the film is dedicated, “In loving memory of my parents, a doctor and a midwife”). It is also interested in the ways that moral righteousness narrows vision and precludes empathy. When one of Vera’s clients must be rushed to the hospital following a “complication,” her doctor insists that the mother give up the name of the abortionist. When the police eventually make their way round to Vera’s on Christmas, the scene couldn’t be more awful. The family is celebrating news of Reg and Ethel’s impending marriage, whose courtship has been rendered in a couple of concise scenes, quite lyrical in their banality (mumbling their affection to one another, they agree, sort of, that marriage would be a good idea: “Did you ever think about moving out?” asks Reg. “You mean get married? To you?” Ethel is astonished. Yes, yes, of course, at which point they share a quick, awkward cuddle, entirely lovely).

At the same time, the Drakes are enduring a plainly uncomfortable time of it with Frank and his materialistic, dyed-blond wife Joyce (Heather Craney), who dislikes driving in from the suburbs to spend her holiday with her husband’s hardscrabble relatives. As Reg does his best to salvage the celebration, selflessly and clumsily offering to eat up the candies that no one else will touch, the day is lost forever. The police arrive in their uniforms, and Vera’s face falls, knowing exactly why they’ve come, even as she doesn’t quite comprehend the consequences of her genuine efforts to “help girls in trouble.”

Vera Drake makes political and class-based points, much like Leigh’s other films. Here the generous souls and the miscreants are immediately visible: Joyce judges Vera instantly, Sid feels understandably lied to and betrayed, Stan does his devastated best to support his beloved partner. But it is the lumbering, hunched over Reg who rises to the occasion most remarkably, understanding without question the pain Vera sees and has tried so selflessly to alleviate. His bond with Vera will remain unspoken, but it lies at the heart of the movie’s meditation on choices and restrictions, life and death.