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Vera Drake

The Globe and Mail

Directed and written by Mike Leigh
Starring Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis, Alex Kelly
Classification: 14A
Rating: ***1/2

Pleasingly plump in her middle age, with a rounded face etched by the years into an icon of human kindness, she calls everyone ''Dear,'' and holds them that way too. Husband, two grown children, ailing mother, troubled neighbours, all enjoy the daily bread of her sweet and generous nature. The world agrees, and so will you on first meeting her: Vera Drake has a heart of gold. Vera Drake is a veritable saint. The power of this remarkable movie lies in asking you to hold that high opinion in the stark light of a further fact. Because, just as indisputably, the good woman is something else too: Vera Drake is also a backroom abortionist.

No filmmaker, in any cinematic culture, has a better eye or ear for the working class than director Mike Leigh. Here, he uses those gifts to summon up postwar London of 1950. Early on, via a succession of short but very precise scenes, Leigh deftly sketches the Drake clan, and, through them, the social and ethical milieu of the time. Stuffed into their cramped but spotless tenement flat, the Drakes look to be the embodiment of Tolstoy's adage that all happy families are alike. There's nothing remarkable about them, it seems, except their shared contentment.

Vera (Imelda Staunton) is a cleaning lady, her husband Stan (Phil Davis) is a car mechanic, and they quietly adore each other -- theirs is an abiding love. Mousey and painfully shy, daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) has caught the attention of the equally timid Reg. Their courtship is comically clumsy, yet this looks to be another happy marriage in the making -- the two instinctively know they're much stronger together than they'd ever be apart. As for the son, Sid (Daniel Mays) is the garrulous joker in the deck, an apprentice tailor who keeps the rest in stitches. But he's a solid fellow, a decent bloke.

Briefly, Leigh takes a peek beyond this nucleus to other rungs on the class ladder. Slightly more elevated is Stan's brother, who owns the garage where they work and lives in an upscale home overseen by his younger wife, a bottle blonde with social-climbing ambitions. But she'll never clamber as high as the households that her sister-in-law cleans. There, Vera scrubs and polishes, humming cheerfully to herself, barely visible to the rich matrons and pampered daughters who sashay by en route to their afternoon appointments. Again, all these scenic details reward attention, since they're crucial to setting the context for the coming narrative twist.

That's when Vera is seen on a different cleanup mission, boiling water for a purpose other than the ubiquitous cup of tea. The flat is squalid, the girl is frightened, the solution is prepared -- water, soap, disinfectant, pumped through a rubber tube. Vera remains her kindly self. She speaks to the girl gently, soothingly, and always in euphemisms: "In a day or two, you should feel a pain down below, and it'll all come right. Don't you worry, dear." The procedure is over in minutes. Money does not change hands. Having completed her mission of mercy -- for so she perceives it -- Vera is gone. There's no follow-up visit.

Leigh dramatizes several more of these encounters, then adds the quasi-legal version for contrast. One of the rich girls gets impregnated by her brutish boyfriend. She consults her doctor, who refers her to a psychiatrist, who goes through the ritual dance of pretending that her mental health is at risk. Then, discreetly in a proper hospital, the abortion is performed -- for a steep price. Meanwhile, back among the poorer classes, Vera charges nothing for her services (at least nothing she's aware of). Yet she seems blithely oblivious of the possible ill effects from her "helping out," until the inevitable happens. A bleeding girl is rushed to the hospital. The police are summoned. They demand a name and get it -- Vera Drake.

Already compelling, this is where the picture turns absolutely riveting. No one in the family, not even her husband, knows of her activities. So when the cops knock sharply at the front door, everyone except Vera is bewildered. Her first words are simply: "I know why you're here." Yet does she? Vera freely confesses, not to the crime of abortion but to the sin of kindness: "I help out young girls. That's what I do." To this point, her utter naiveté, especially about the potential risk of her methods, appears to be a major flaw in the film's script. But, here, the same naiveté comes to seem a tragic flaw in Vera's character. Tragic, because it's only when the detectives press her to name the deed, to actually use the word "abortion," that she crumbles before us. The pathos is overwhelming, and so is Staunton's performance -- that serene face suddenly shreds into anguished tatters.

Leigh has spent a career examining precisely this reticence in the English character -- this need to harbour secrets and maintain lies, or, when that strategy fails, to dress them up in the camouflage of polite euphemism. In such a stiff-lipped world, truth-speakers -- like his manic protagonist in the aptly named Naked -- are social pariahs and existential outcasts. And if popularity is their goal, even artists, as witnessed by the Gilbert and Sullivan of Topsy-Turvy, do better to escape from life's nasty realities into the cheerful realm of theatrical illusion. Typically, then, Leigh's movies are exposés that pull back the curtain to reveal the hard truths that lurk behind.

Although this is no exception, Leigh pushes the theme further, nudging it into the territory of the "efficacious lie" that Ibsen explored in The Wild Duck. If the society and the state are hypocritical -- as they were on the abortion issue -- then a good individual (especially a good individual) may be obliged to lie. And those lies can be simultaneously effective and dangerous -- they protect and they destroy. Long before governments offered women a safe choice, Vera Drake offered them a risky one. In doing so, out of the kindness of her naive heart, she was as good as gold and as guilty as sin. She begs to be judged on both counts, and that's the wonder of this gripping film. It insists that we do judge her, but all of her -- evenly, firmly, mercifully.

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