Vera Drake never made it to Spokane. And at first, watching this cozy little slice of working- class London life, I had to wonder why. Stout, aging Vera (Imelda Staunton) bustles through a typical day -- visiting shut-ins, dusting the furniture of wealthier ladies, meeting old friends from before the War. When she finally returns home each night, she's greeted by her lower-middle-class family -- gruff but affectionate husband (Richard Graham), entrepreneurial son (Daniel Mays) and painfully awkward daughter (Alex Kelley). It's clear the Drakes need Vera as much as she needs them -- it's as if the entire household's limited circumstances suddenly become warm and cheering once she enters the room.
But as Vera makes one last stop on her daily rounds, suddenly it all becomes clear. Vera is an abortionist. Granted, she never calls it that and the duties she performs for free are intended as a rescue for desperate young girls "what find themselves in the family way" and have nowhere else to turn. The love underlying her actions, however, in some markets might be trumped by the political and moral overtones of the film as a whole.
Director Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies) doesn't work from a prepared script, and the actors move throughout their scenes with an unstudied freshness. His attention to detail, though, is impeccably researched. His 1950 London is a harsh environment where tea and nylons are still scarce, wartime survival instincts haven't subsided and women's reproductive options were just about nil. Vera's "equipment," when finally unwrapped from its modest little basket, is horrific. A cheese grater, some scary-looking pink soap and a syringe are the basic tools of her trade.
Leigh is careful not to make a bold political statement so much as to tell the story of one woman whose acts -- no matter how innocent her intentions -- catch up with her. It's here where the film makes its only stumble -- Leigh focuses much too long on Staunton's stricken face when the audience already understands all too well what's taking place, still there are also moments that are transcendent and beautiful -- a shy young woman's radiant smile, her homely fiance's loyalty. Leigh has constructed something truly remarkable here.
Publication date: 04/21/05