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21 December 2005

Vera Drake (2004)

Imelda Staunton (Vera), Phil Davis (Stan), Alex Kelly (Ethel), and Daniel Mays (Sid)

Directed by Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies)

From Hollywood Video: "Acclaimed drama revolves around a selfless woman and loving mother who secretly helps young, desperate women to induce miscarriages for their unwanted pregnancies, a practice that was illegal in 1950s England."

I believe Imeldon Staunton was cast solely for her ability to cry for an hour straight, which is what her character did upon her eventual arrest for performing illegal abortions. I wished she'd had a little more resiliency and backbone, a trait that irritated my sense of justice and fairness, but that was not her character nor the point of this film.

Mike Leigh's amusing trick, which made watching the film more interesting, was that only Staunton knew that the film was about abortion. All of the other actors learned when their characters learned. The scenes were filmed in order and were mainly improvisational, hence the repeated and obsessive references to having another cuppa (tea), and the result was a film of unassuming normalcy. This is a typical English family, complete with a tiny house, tea, a stilted courtship, massive class distinctions, tea, and requisite stiff upper lips.

I would have thought this a film of relentless stereotypes if I didn't know better. I enjoyed hearing authentic east London working-class accents for a change, along with their idiosyncratic phrases and comic expressions, without waiting for some overpaid American to slip up and ruin the illusion. They were refreshingly, ordinarily ENGLISH. In fact, I kept trying to imagine my in-laws in this situation, with Linda enduring the humiliation of being finger-printed, with Trevor sitting patiently in a police station as he waited for news on his wife's mysterious crime, with Steve ranting righteously about his mum's misdeeds and how it would affect his life (like Drake's son, Sid), and with Keven watching everyone else for signs of how greatly this would change their family (like Drake's daughter, Ethel).

Another quiet success was Leigh's rather objective portrayal of a sympathetic woman. The first half hour reveals the two paths a woman could take when having an abortion in 1950s England. She could take the quasi-legitimate, very expensive, highly clinical, male-dominated path of doctors on the take while performing this illegal operation, as was followed by one well-to-do daughter who was raped. Or, she could take the secretive, inexpensive, but female-dominated path of illegal practitioners, where (in the case of Vera Drake) she was much more likely to receive gentle words, a caring embrace, and a complete lack of judgment.

However, after presenting two parallel options, Leigh refused to politicize the issue. Drake was guilty of a crime, as it stood on the books. She went through the legal system. Her family coped with the aftermath. There was no rallying press, outcry from the public, or revolutionary change. This was one woman's story as she quietly dealt with the consequences. The issue of legalization and societal change would be left to other women, other cases, other films.

Anonymous AmicaCarmilla said...

The analogy to the Lofties made me laugh to cry. :o )

It may sound a contradiction that we paid £25 for a low budget film, and it is surely too much but we were at the 2004 LFF opening gala, and actors and director honoured us with their presence.

Leigh's intentional impartiality on this social issue is reinforced by the contrast between Vera's candid and uninterested commitment in helping troubled women and her repentant passivity when caught and accused of this crime.

Although the audience agrees that a knitting needle is not the safest solution, it was so easy to feel compassion for this humble woman wholly dedicated to her family and community.

Like in Secret and Lies what I most enjoyed of this film was their colourful dialogues with their cockney inflation and local phrases , perfectly apt for a theatre script.


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