Vera Drake

Heartrending even by the standards of director Mike Leigh's most sentimental films, his somewhat reductive treatment of a complex subject is saved by yet another typically brilliant cast. London, 1950: Chipper Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is a hardworking wife and mother who supplements the income her husband, Stan (Phil Davis), brings home from his brother's...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Heartrending even by the standards of director Mike Leigh's most sentimental films, his somewhat reductive treatment of a complex subject is saved by yet another typically brilliant cast. London, 1950: Chipper Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is a hardworking wife and mother who supplements the income her husband, Stan (Phil Davis), brings home from his brother's (Adrian Scarborough) auto-repair shop by cleaning the homes of upper-class families. When she's not polishing brass andirons in some tony drawing room, or home in her own cramped flat preparing supper for Stan and their children, socially awkward Ethel (Alex Kelly) and outgoing haberdasher Sid (Daniel Mays), Vera is caring for her own ailing mother (Sandra Voe). But unbeknownst to her family, Vera secretly performs another service for "girls who need help": She's an abortionist. Vera doesn't do it for the money; she wouldn't dare accept payment, though Lily (Ruth Sheen), her hard-bitten "fixer," does. Vera does it because, in her view, life is hard enough for working-class women without the added burden of unplanned pregnancy or the stigma of bearing an illegitimate child. Vera's method — a solution of carbolic soap and warm water, administered with a syringe — has so far proved safe and effective, but abortion is a crime in England and with each new client she takes on, Vera runs the very serious risk of going to jail. Leigh favors rather obvious juxtapositions: Lives lived on each side of the great English class chasm are defined in opposition to each other. We know the warmth of the Drake household because we first see the cold sterility of the homes Vera uncomplainingly cleans. We realize the terrible double standard that punishes poor pregnant women because we first see how rich girls, like the daughter (Sally Hawkins) of one of Vera's employers, are able to secure technically illegal abortions as long as they have the money and the proper connections. None of this is terribly subtle, but it's undeniably effective and ultimately the story of Vera Drake is one of Leigh's most powerful, thanks primarily to its nakedly emotional subject matter and a simply extraordinary performance by Imelda Staunton. Like Brenda Blethyn in Leigh's best-known movie, SECRETS & LIES (1996), Staunton is phenomenal — she barely speaks throughout the entire last third of the film, but the power of her posture and distraught expressions are enough to break your heart.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: R
  • Review: Heartrending even by the standards of director Mike Leigh's most sentimental films, his somewhat reductive treatment of a complex subject is saved by yet another typically brilliant cast. London, 1950: Chipper Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is a hardworking… (more)

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