Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 27 March 2005
Source New Line DVD
Screening Log: Vera Drake
Reviews: Secrets & Lies
Vera Drake performs abortions, or, in her words, “helps young girls out.” This, to her, is not extraordinary. It is simply something she does in the course of her day in between cleaning houses, visiting her infirm mother, making tea for her neighbor, or inviting a lonely young man to dinner. She takes no payment and expects no favors. She is a good woman and is, essentially, a secular saint who just happens to be breaking the law.
There are few topics that generate more controversy than abortion, yet Mike Leigh’s film seems wholly uninterested in courting debate. While it is clear from the film that Leigh falls on the pro-choice side of the issue, he does not portray those who oppose abortion as stooges and he does not turn Vera into a poster child for a cause. In fact, the film would be very much the same if Vera had been committing some other type of morally fraught crime—stealing food to feed starving children, for example. The only opinions that matter to Leigh are those of Vera’s own family. There are those who stick by her because she is family and there are those who are ashamed or outraged by Vera’s actions. Vera, however, is very sorry that she has broken the law, but she is not sorry that she helped those in need.
When Vera Drake was first released, I remember reading a description of the film (or perhaps of Imelda Staunton’s performance) as “an hour of making tea, followed by an hour of weeping.” Although comically reductive, this is a fairly accurate description of the film. While the comment was probably meant to be dismissive, it points to Mike Leigh’s continued mastery of the small moment. For Leigh, history is not in made in the grand gestures of great people but in the quotidian lives of everyday people. In the case of Vera Drake, the heart of the abortion issue is not in the abstract pro-life versus pro-choice debate, but in the way individual women had to cope with their decisions and the potential criminality of the ways in which they chose to manage their own bodies. At the same time, Leigh provides no simple slogans to rally around, no role models behind which to stand. Vera Drake is a very simple film with a very complicated issue at its center that raises many complicated questions.