VERA DRAKE. 2004. DIRECTED BY MIKE LEIGH. STARRING IMELDA STAUNTON, PHIL DAVIS AND PETER WIGHT. REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
This is a superb film. Tightly scripted and beautifully acted, there isn’t a single false note from beginning to end. The sets, costumes and dialogue are all perfect and authentic and of the time, the time being post-World War Two Britain, a country which still hadn’t fully recovered from the battering it sustained at the hands of Hitler’s armies.
Imelda Staunton does a brilliant job of portraying the titular Vera Drake. Vera is happily married to Stan, who is a mechanic in his brother Frank’s garage. They have two grown-up children, Sid and Ethel. (The names! Aren’t they so utterly post-World War Two Britain…?) Vera cleans houses and is well-liked by all her employers, who deem her to be hard-working and trustworthy.
Vera is also held in high esteem by the friends, neighbours and relatives to whom she is always ready and willing to extend a helping hand, a cup of tea or an invite round to the Drakes for a bit of grub and a friendly chat. Everybody who knows her loves Vera. So does the viewer, right from the off, because she’s so entirely likeable, sensible and motherly. We all want a mother like Vera, if we don’t already have one.
That’s why it’s so shocking when we are shown another side of Vera’s life, a side which of necessity she has never shared with a single member of her family, not even her beloved Stan. Vera helps out girls and women who’ve gotten themselves ‘into trouble.’
That is to say, with the aid of a syringe and a nice fat block of carbolic soap which she grates and adds to hot water, Vera helps frightened, distressed women to terminate their unwanted pregnancies in the privacy of their own bedrooms.
It is clear right from the start that Vera genuinely believes that she is helping these women, all of whom have enlisted her services of their own free will. Vera takes no money at all for her services, although her unscrupulous friend Lillian has no such qualms.
We are shown in no uncertain terms that the women who have been reduced to resorting to such extreme measures are desperate. Desperate with fear and desperate to be rid of the pregnancies that they all clearly view as potentially life-destroying, that is.
They have nowhere else to turn but to a ‘backstreet abortionist’ like Vera, who is by no means the only woman performing such procedures in 1950’s London. That much is clear from the film.
Whether you are pro- or anti-abortion, it’s hard not to feel sorry for these poor women, both the terrified young girls without husbands who will be outcasts if they have to become unmarried mothers and also the married women with too many children and not enough money to feed them.
By contrast, we are shown how wealthy young women are able to achieve with money and relative ease what the poorer classes are unable to without, seemingly, resorting to criminality.
One day, though, one of Vera’s procedures results in a young woman’s becoming violently ill and needing hospitalisation. The police are called in because ‘using an instrument with intent to bring about a miscarriage’ is illegal and could, in certain circumstances, bring about the death of the woman as well as the child. Vera is charged and has no choice but to stand by and watch helplessly while her life suddenly falls apart.
There are so many perfect performances and moments to look out for in the film. The two brothers, Stan and Frank, give sterling performances, as does Inspector Webster, the policeman whose job it is to question Vera.
My favourite moment is one involving Reg, who has become Ethel’s fiancé thanks entirely to Vera’s kindness and big-heartedness. Even though the family into which he’s marrying is mired down in shame and trouble, he’s still the happiest he’s ever been because he’s a part of it all.
Lesley Sharp is spot-on as the working-class mother who’s both afraid for her daughter’s health and simultaneously extremely wary of doctors and the police. Imelda Staunton is unforgettable as Vera. The film won a slew of awards- hardly surprising- and I personally was glued to it for every second of its one-hundred-and-twenty minutes.
If it’s a good laugh and a bit of escapism from the nitty-gritty of everyday life you’re after, it’s probably not the film to watch. But if you want a thoughtful, gentle, beautifully-acted powerhouse of a movie that’ll make you laugh, cry, and think, a film you’ll remember for a long time afterwards, then you’re in luck. VERA DRAKE will do the job.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based performance poet, novelist, film blogger, sex blogger and short story writer. She has given more than 200 performances of her comedy sex-and-relationship poems in different venues around Dublin, including The Irish Writers’ Centre, The International Bar, Toners’ Pub (Ireland’s Most Literary Pub), the Ha’penny Inn, Le Dernier Paradis at the Trinity Inn and The Strokestown Poetry Festival.
Her articles, short stories and poems have appeared in The Metro-Herald newspaper, Ireland’s Big Issues magazine, The Irish Daily Star, The Irish Daily Sun and The Boyne Berries literary journal. In August 2014, she won the ONE LOVELY BLOG award for her (lovely!) horror film review blog. She is addicted to buying books and has been known to bring home rain-washed tomes she finds on the street and give them a home.
She is the proud possessor of a pair of unfeasibly large bosoms. They have given her- and the people around her- infinite pleasure over the years. She adores the horror genre in all its forms and will swap you anything you like for Hammer Horror or JAWS memorabilia. She would also be a great person to chat to about the differences between the Director’s Cut and the Theatrical Cut of The Wicker Man. You can contact her at: