Los Angeles Times

Movie review: 'Vera Drake'


4 stars (out of 4)

Imelda Staunton, the superb British actress who plays the title character in director Mike Leigh's shattering "Vera Drake," exudes such a cheerful, grandmotherly presence that audience members may be shocked when they discover, early on, that this kind old lady is an illegal abortionist in 1950 London, well before that practice was legalized in Britain.

Generous to a fault, unfailingly helpful to everyone, looking like a character out of Charles Dickens but trapped in a 20th Century working-class world, Vera has somehow fallen into the gray zone of the social outlaw. And she is also about to fall, with a cold inevitability, into the vise of British law.

Vera's story, told with masterly art and profound insight by one of England's great filmmakers, pulses with humanity. Few directors can portray the dilemmas of commonplace life or the comedies and tragedies of the ordinary with the brilliance and compassion of Leigh ("Secrets and Lies," "Meantime," "Naked"), who has here made one of his masterpieces.

Leigh always has been extraordinary at creating believable, densely populated social environments in the present and occasionally, as in the Gilbert and Sullivan bio "Topsy-Turvy," the past. We first see Vera firmly set in shopworn post-war London, which is still plagued by wreckage and shortages. She moves around, smiling and energetic, at both her job as a cleaning lady for the rich and as a good Samaritan for her family and community, visiting her ailing mother or inviting a shy young neighbor, Reg (Eddie Marsan), to dinner with the Drakes. They're a cheery, British-beefsteak bunch: Vera, stalwart garage-mechanic husband Stan (Phil Davis), fun-loving tailor son Sid (Daniel Mays) and factory wallflower daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly).

But part of Vera's deeds, we soon see, involve "helping" young girls in trouble--with makeshift equipment of syringe and bulb in a wooden box--and though Vera takes no payment for her "operations," her two-faced black-market friend Lily (Ruth Sheen) does, without Vera's knowledge.

The first part of the film shows Vera's double life, cheery and shadowy, presented with cool-eyed thoroughness. In the last half, we see what happens when one of her patients nearly dies and Vera is revealed to the police--to the sympathetic but relentless Detective Inspector Webster (Peter Wright)--and falls into the legal system, to the shock of her family and the mortification of their middle-class relations, garage-owner Frank (Adrian Scarborough) and snobbish wife Joyce (Heather Craney).

Among its many excellences, "Vera Drake" functions superbly as a pure thriller; the last half is reminiscent in structure and detail of Hitchcock's "The Wrong Man." Leigh makes it clear that Vera is, despite the guilt that soon crushes her, the wrong woman; she operates not from greed or even political conviction, but honest concern. And though some may dismiss this as a liberal fairytale, Leigh and Staunton are never false for a moment.

Leigh, who was born in 1943 and who dedicates the film to his parents, a doctor and a midwife, absolutely knows whereof he speaks. One of the strongest elements of "Vera Drake" is the sense of reality that permeates everything we see, as well as the genuine balance. It's crucial to the story that Vera has almost been responsible for a death, that this knowledge devastates her and that the police are not portrayed as cold-hearted bullies. Wright (the talkative security guard in "Naked") plays Inspector Webster as a model of bulldog investigation but also of decency and courtesy.

For some, Vera will be a monster. For many, I suspect, she will seem a good, well-meaning woman trapped by an unfair system. As Leigh writes it, the law is the villain here, though, as Staunton plays her, Vera is in no way a didactic character. In the role, she is real, warm, perfect. There is one semi-didactic spot in "Vera Drake": Leigh drops in a parallel plot about Susan (Sally Hawkins), daughter of one of Vera's upper-class employers, who is date-raped, made pregnant and eased into an expensive system where abortions can be performed by medical professionals, with a psychiatrist's imprimatur. This side-plot exists primarily to make a social point, but it works because the information is both true and crucial and because the characters live.

What lifts "Vera" above almost every other film so far this year is that sense of teeming life and warming empathy. The picture, which has already won the Best Film and Actress awards at the Venice Film Festival, is a prime example of how genuine drama terrifies and uplifts us. It also reveals how controversial subjects can seem fresh and new in the hands of a master director and a great ensemble cast--of Mike Leigh, the doctor's son who remembers the past, and Imelda Staunton, a wondrous actress who makes us see, though her ruddily human face, that not all questions of life and death are black and white.

"Vera Drake"

Directed and written by Mike Leigh; photographed by Dick Pope; edited by Jim Clark; production designed by Eve Stewart; music by Andrew Dickson; produced by Simon Channing Williams, Alain Sarde. A Fine Line Features release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:05. MPAA rating: R (for language and sexual material).

Vera Drake - Imelda Staunton
Stan Drake - Phil Davis
Det. Inspector Webster - Peter Wight
Frank Drake - Adrian Scarborough
Joyce Drake - Heather Craney
Sid Drake - Daniel Mays
Ethel Drake - Alex Kelly
Lily - Ruth Sheen

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