The title character in “Vera Drake” is a plump, middle-aged wife and mother who works cheerfully as a housekeeper for rich people and performs a dizzying succession of good deeds in her spare time. She visits shut-ins, invites lonely bachelors over for tea with the family, sews patches on friends’ tattered clothing — oh, and often appears at women’s houses to perform their abortions.
What is most extraordinary about this film, written and directed by that master of British dreariness Mike Leigh (“All or Nothing,” “Secrets & Lies”) and set in early 1950s London, is that while it is about abortion, it is not JUST about abortion, nor even JUST about the abortionist. Every character is richly drawn, every detail is perfect. Where many filmmakers would treat abortion as an enormous entree and serve it up without a thought to presentation, Leigh uses it as a centerpiece and surrounds it with an elegant buffet.
Vera is acted with Oscar-worthy precision by Imelda Staunton, and if five better performances yet emerge this year and bump her out of the running, then it will have been a stunning year for actresses indeed. She makes the character more complex than she could have been, showing genuine sympathy for the people she attends to, yet remaining briskly efficient. She is nearly always out of breath from bustling about. Her instructions to her abortion patients, we realize, are almost word-for-word the same each time, and when she stops by the home of a shut-in — including her own aged mother — her conversation is not just light and merry but extremely brief. She never seems at a loss for words, because when all else fails, she suggests making tea, a superficial solution to what are often difficult problems. We know she’s not terribly well-educated, and you get the feeling she’s perhaps a little simple-minded, too, as if her desire to do good in the world is often at odds with her inability to process all the pain and suffering she sees.
Yet at the same time, it could all be on purpose. Her polite cordiality could be a calculation to keep her from becoming emotionally attached to the people she helps. Her husband Stan (Phil Davis) and grown children Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly) adore her, look up to her, let her run the household with the same unassuming power that she runs everything else. She is either brilliant, or else in over her head. If the film were twice as long, I suspect I would learn twice as much about the character through Staunton’s textured performance of her.
Around here are more interesting details and fascinating characters. Stan works as a mechanic with his brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough), whose materialistic wife Joyce (Heather Craney) keeps them steadily in debt. Sid is a tailor and a smooth-talker. Ethel is mousy and shy and works in a factory testing light bulbs. She probably wanted to be just like Mum earlier on but has now realized she’s not cut out for it. No one knows about Vera’s secret occupation.
We don’t know how or when Vera started doing abortions, but the woman who arranges them for her is a cold, bespectacled woman named Lily (Ruth Sheen). She’s a businesswoman who sells rationed sugar and other supplies to her friends and who also accepts payment of two shillings for the abortions. Vera sees none of this. She’s just doing it to be helpful.
The first half of the film establishes the world of Vera Drake, of her family and acquaintances and lifestyle. In the second half, it comes crashing down. The legal status of abortions is not exactly explained — we see a doctor offering to perform one for 150 pounds, but it’s not clear whether he ought to be — but for an unlicensed woman to go from house to house doing them is definitely illegal, and Vera is apprehended. Leigh shows us the entire grueling process, arrest, interrogation, bail hearing and trial. Vera remains heartbreakingly sweet and complacent throughout, insisting she was only doing the Christian thing by “helping girls out.”
The film barely addresses the rightness of wrongness of abortion; such matters are not the point. What matters is that Vera Drake believes what she is doing is right. Politics are beside the point.
No claim is made that “Vera Drake” is based on a true story, but it has the mark of a film that is, including a certain lack of focus near the end as it wanders toward its conclusion. Certainly there were women like Vera in England (and America, I’d wager) in the 1950s and before, when abortion was either illegal or only vaguely legal and seldom discussed. Every detail of the film breathes with authenticity, fully creating the grimy, working-class world of post-war London, and the characters talk, behave and look exactly like real people. (There is not what you’d call a handsome face anywhere to be found.) To watch it is to be transported 5 1/2 decades back in time and thrust into another world.
B+ (2 hrs., 5 min.; )