The Guardian 23 February, 2005
Film Review by Andrew Jackson
Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring Imelda Staunton, Richard Graham and Jim Broadbent
Mrs Vera Drake is "a saint" — as her husband says. After long hours of scrubbing the floors and polishing the brass of the upper classes she dedicates the rest of her time and abundant generosity to caring for those in need — her elderly mother, her disabled neighbour, and "young girls in trouble".
That's how Vera Drake describes what she does.
She is handed a slip of paper. After work she visits the address, discreetly; an anxious young pregnant woman will open the door. No names are exchanged, the woman's identity is of no concern to Vera Drake, the circumstances by which she became pregnant are of no concern either.
With some relaxing chit-chat to calm the nerves the simple procedure is performed efficiently and with minimum of fuss. A soothing cup of tea is left by the woman's bedside before she departs.
This is a community service; this is Vera's duty. The work is performed free-of-charge to assist those in need.
No-one in Vera's family is aware of her special role in the North London community. Their home life is perfect, all are employed, their small home comfortable and well-kept. The money earned puts a "good spread" on the table every night with an extra setting for a lonely local bachelor. The few extra pence available are spent on a bag of black-market boiled lollies or night at the cinema.
But in Britain in 1950 an abortion is not a social service, it's not a medical matter, it is a criminal act.
A safe, legal abortion is available only to the well-connected and very wealthy. A "friend-in-the-know" could direct you to the "helpful" GP, which would lead to an appointment with an "understanding" psychiatrist who would refer you on to a "willing" obstetrician. All at the "right price", of course.
But for 1950s' working-class women life provided no such choices. Women had little choice over their fertility to begin with — the man's unquestioned role as head of the household most likely meant that fertility choices were also his.
Formal sex education was unthinkable, contraception was either unheard of or unavailable (the advent of the pill was still almost two decades away) and even if the woman wanted a child, the ability to feed it — at a time when even the barest necessities in life such as sugar and tinned meat were subjected to post-war rationing — became a critical determining factor in whether a baby could be had.
However, if abortions carried out even by the most accomplished obstetrician in the best-equipped hospital held a risk of complication, then those carried out in dark bedrooms by people with no medical training using rudimentary implements would most certainly one day end in tragedy.
Vera Drake the film, like its unassuming, affable namesake, is no nonsense. An abortion is a relatively uncomplicated medical procedure and the film presents it as such — clinically and ungratuitiously.
The varying situations of the women who find themselves in need of an abortion are presented in a personal yet unmelodramatic way.
The real drama of the film focuses where it rightly should — the Victorian morality and criminalisation of the act, which forced Vera Drake's hand in the first place.
Mike Leigh directs an outstanding cast giving every scene the subtlety and poignancy required of such a script.
Imelda Staunton has been lauded and awarded world-wide for her outstanding performance as Vera Drake.
Vera Drake is now showing in Dendy/Kino and Palace cinemas in capital cities.