By Eli Ungar
Films are human endeavors and one can safely assume that they will, by their very nature, contain flaws. Some films contain glaring errors while others contain rather subtle ones, but most will agree that there is no such thing as a perfect film. While these assumptions are usually quite serviceable, there is that rare film that makes you step back in awe and just marvel at its mastery. Director Mike Leigh’s latest film, Vera Drake, is just such a film.
Leigh, whose previous films include Secrets and Lies and Topsy Turvy, turns his gaze this time to 1950s England. It is the story of the Drake family: Vera (Imelda Staunton) is the working class mother of Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethyl (Alex Kelley), both young adults who work and live at home. Vera is happily married to Stan (Phil Davis), who works with his brother, Frank (Adrian Scarborough), in an auto repair shop. Vera is the heart of the family and she is a beautiful person who always lends a helping hand to those in need.
The Drakes by no means live a carefree existence, but Vera’s good will seems to radiate out, creating an atmosphere that glows with love and happiness. However, as we are shown early on, Vera’s altruism extends beyond what post-war British law æpermits. On a regular basis, she finds the time to perform back-room abortions for pregnant girls unable to afford the 100 pounds needed to have a medically supervised abortion.
From the first frame, one is sunk into the world of these characters in a way that is so intense and genuine, it is simply astounding. The attention to detail in the mise-en- scène, from the art design to the lighting to the rhythm of speech in the dialogue, is so compelling that at times it is easy to actually forget that one isæwatching a film. What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that it demonstrates the ability of a fictional narrative to recreate an experience in the viewer. A documentary about the same subject might only hope to reference such an experience. Moreover, the performances are of the highest caliber all around.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way in which silence creeps into the family. Towards the end of the second act, Vera is discovered and arrested by Detective Inspector Webster (Peter Wight), and from that point until the end of the film, the dialogue becomes sparse and tense where it had once been dense and humorous. It is during this segment of the film that Leigh’s humanity shows itself in a moving and evocative way. In lesser hands, a subject as charged as abortion would have descended into didactic propagandistic diatribe coming down on one side of the issue, or the other.
Vera Drake is very carefully shepherded over that knife edge of empathetic presentation without forcing one perspective or another on the viewer. For example, Vera is discovered because one of the young girls that she “helps out” ends up almost dying from her treatment. æ Also the Detective Inspector is not stereotyped as a villain; he is rather shown to be sympathetic. Finally, the family itself is not unanimous in its reaction to the revelation that Vera had been performing abortions. Sid, for example, has a very negative reaction, thinking that his mother has done something horrible.
We never get that expected speech from Vera that would somehow explain, or justify her behaviour. All we ever hear are fragments that come from a stunned woman, who is so upset by her arrest that she can barely articulate whole entences. This aspect of the story frustrated me, until I realized that I was yearning for a speech, because I personally have a very strong opinion on the issue of abortion and I wanted Vera to share the same opinion with me. That Leigh didn’t allow me this luxury is a testament to his brilliance as a filmmaker. Vera’s character wasn’t performing these abortions because of politics any more than she was performing them for money. Vera performed the abortions, because her good heart wouldn’t allow her to stand idly by while these poor girls’ lives were ruined.
If I had to offer a criticism of the film it would be about the ending. After Vera is convicted to 18 months in there, we spend some time with her in prison, where we realize that there are many other women like her, in prison for performing abortions. We cut from here to the last shot of the film, which shows the family sitting miserably in the house that Vera’s presence had once illuminated. I feel that the film could have ended with her sentence pronouncement, but this is a minor complaint. Indeed, it is difficult to find fault with Vera Drake, because it holds on to the truth in that peculiar way that only fiction can.