It’s 1950 in London, a gray, sunless city still weary from the massive war effort. The city’s filled with battle-scarred men, and women who have learned to rely not on them, but on each other. Luxuries like chocolate and sugar remain in short supply. Few ordinary people have washing machines and the acquisition of a TV is cause for giddy celebration.
Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton, I’ll Be There) is a short, dumpy ray of sunshine who hums while she works and feels useful and loved in her small circle of family and friends. She views the world with cheery naivete and gives it massive doses of compassion. Her husband, George (Richard Graham, Gangs of New York), feels lucky to be married to someone “with a heart of gold.” She’s also adored by her two grown children: Terribly shy Ethel (Alex Kelly), who has a dead-end job on an assembly line, and budding gadfly Sid (Daniel Mays, Pearl Harbor), a fashion-conscious tailor.
Because of the city’s post-war housing shortage, they’re all forced to live under one roof, but they amicably endure their cramped lifestyle. In addition to her family tasks, Vera cares of her elderly mother and several disabled neighbors, gifting them with a cup of hot tea and heartfelt words of comfort.
On her way home from the big houses where she works as a cleaning woman, once or twice a week Vera “helps out young girls.” “Take off your knickers, dear,” she says softly as she unloads her homemade abortion kit.
Vera has been doing this for more than 20 years, helping women who “have no one to turn to.” She makes no judgments about the women, and neither, it seems, does she think about the fetuses. Vera’s moral compass doesn’t waver, even though the movie itself does, encompassing in its dramatic format the pro and con arguments about abortion.
Vera takes no money from her “patients,” for she does it out of the goodness of her heart and tells no one about it. She doesn’t know that her friend Lily (Ruth Sheen, Vanity Fair) takes a goodly sum for referring the desperate women to her.
Abortion was illegal in England until 1967. Before then, upper class women could get an abortion by going through an expensive and humiliating process with some doctors. Lower-class women, however, had no such options. Rape, abuse, too many children already, it didn’t matter — women who wanted to end their pregnancy had no choice but to find a back-street abortionist, most of whom were not as kind or careful as Vera Drake.
The women’s experiences are terrifying: They’re alone, in pain and traumatized by the abortion horror stories they’ve heard. Vera is a gentle stranger who fills them with liquid, then leaves moments later, never to be seen again. But as conscientious as Vera is, the procedure is risky. When one young girl becomes deathly ill, Vera’s secret life comes crashing down.
Days later, Drake’s family throws a party to celebrate Ethel’s engagement to the shy neighbor Vera brought home to meet her (Eddie Marsan, 21 Grams). While snow falls without any promise of leaving a pristine landscape, four police officers knock at Vera’s door.
English director Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy) is famous for making his movies without a script; he holds his actors in isolation for months as they improvise scenes and develop their characters. In this case, the actors playing Vera’s family had no idea about her secret until their characters discovered it. The resulting shock and disgrace — and then their resolve to stand by her — are so real that the space between the viewer and the characters disappears. Leigh uses Staunton’s aging-cherub face as his kinetic canvas, allowing this incredibly talented actress time to create every nuance of her character’s heartbreaking emotional struggle. As the once happy and secure Vera crumbles under the threat of imprisonment, you feel every step of her disintegration.
Vera Drake isn’t always easy to watch. The film is overly long and often dreary — but still worth every single second. It’s not unlike real life, actually — and that’s the point. Rated R for depiction of strong thematic material.
— reviewed by Marci Miller