The brilliantly textured and human story of Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake can be summed up in one word. Feeling. Beautifully rendered, layered feeling.
The simple story of the meek but dedicated woman Vera Drake as she goes about caring for her family and the less fortunate within her scope of influence, as well as “helping young girls out” as she would describe it, would be a parable of subtle selflessness were it not so tragic and real. Played with a sublime quiet by Imelda Staunton, in a performance that is hand built for the Oscar nomination she deservedly received, Vera is a peasant, one of the faceless majority, in the class driven society that is 1950’s post-war London. Dedicated to her family, and her community, she spends her days in service to the elite during the day for money, and her evenings making sure her family and neighbors are well taken care of. Seeking no comfort for herself, Vera ekes out a living and counts herself fortunate for the little she has.
Almost as a presumption and without explanation, we soon learn that Vera Drake extends that sense of service to women who find themselves pregnant and don’t want to be. Managed with the delicacy of a diamond cutter, Mike Leigh shows us the helpless nature of some of these girls, and the almost workmanlike but caring approach Vera took as she helped these women terminate their pregnancies. Without gore or histrionics, but also with an unflinching eye to the reality of what is going on, we follow Vera into the bedrooms and kitchen tables of women desperate and without options or opportunities.
Without politicization or unnecessary preaching, Leigh does a masterful job of showing the full spectrum of the situation. Forcing the audience to see the desperation of a mother of seven carrying a secret and knows she can’t support an eighth, or the confusion of a young teenager, as well as the almost callous routine of a housewife using the back door operation as birth control, the full spectrum of the issue is demonstrated. The rich and influential have a different, safer and more accepted process and we see that as well. In all of this, Vera Drake is not elevated as a saint, but has an almost routine sense of disconnection to what is going on. As if it were no different that cleaning a bedside table or cooking a meal, Vera races from operation to other task with a disconnection to the magnitude of the act and the fear that is being experienced.
But the viewers feel it. We feel the desperation of the women on the table, drawing their knickers down for a stranger to help them. We feel the sense of responsibility and service Vera draws upon as she goes from house to house. We feel the cramped warmth of the Drake’s modest flat in the slums of post-war London. We also feel the love and admiration the Drake’s have for one another.
We almost feel too much. The film can basically be cut into two acts. The first act, Vera is happy and serving others, and we feel all of that. The second act, Vera gets busted and we feel her and her family’s sense of confusion and inconsolable sadness. Without explanation of how she got started “helping young girls out” or what the policy debate society as a whole was having at this time in history, or the background on the women she serviced and the aftermath of the act, the film seemed to lack context. Vera Drake is a peek into the life of a woman abortionist at this point in history. Maybe that’s all it was meant to be. For me, I would have liked to see more than Vera is happy – Vera is sad.