"Vera Drake" is a powerful British drama that was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actress (Imelda Staunton), Best Director (Mike Leigh), and Best Original Screenplay (Leigh again). As far as I am concerned, the movie was one of 2004's best.
In the title role, Imelda Staunton gives a performance I'll never forget. Vera Drake is a middle-aged, working-class, devoted wife and mother who earns money by cleaning the houses of the well-to-do. She's goodhearted, energetic, cheerful, and always helping others.
I would say the scenes with Vera's family in their cramped living quarters are the film's strongest. There's her mechanic husband, her tailor son, her shy daughter, and the daughter's suitor. The ensemble acting and dialogue are terrific.
"Vera Drake" is set in London in 1950, and one of the things I like most about the movie is its sense of time and place. The country hasn't fully recovered from World War II, and some commodities are still hard to get. But the Drake family has backbone, and when I think about Britain standing up to the Nazis, it's folks like them who come to mind.
The film's story centers around something Vera does that she keeps secret from her family. In her zeal to help others, she regularly performs a procedure on women that terminates unwanted pregnancies. Vera receives no money for this, and there is no doubt that her intentions are good. But what she is doing is illegal, and she is putting the women in danger because she has no connection whatsoever with any medical professionals.
However, all of the women Vera tries to help by inducing miscarriages are from the lower classes. The movie contrasts their situation sharply with that of a woman who lives in one of the upscale houses where Vera works as a cleaning lady. When that woman becomes pregnant, she goes to carefully chosen doctors and pays a considerable sum of money, enabling her to check into what appears to be a private clinic and get a safe, legal abortion.
I'm not sure writer-director Mike Leigh shed any new light on the controversial topic of abortion in "Vera Drake," but I think he did manage to compellingly dramatize the way the title character's society dealt with the issue. Affluent women could get legal abortions from medical professionals, but poor women couldn't. Then if a desperate poor woman resorted to a back-street abortionist and something went wrong, the society would cleanse itself by using the abortionist as a scapegoat.
But the tone of Leigh's film is not argumentative; instead, it is low-keyed and restrained. The story does not feel forced to me: it seems to flow naturally from the characters' daily lives. The movie doesn't rely on surprise or climactic moments, yet it had a big emotional impact on me. I think Leigh's genius is that he somehow made me feel as though I was a member of the Drake family, and I was appalled at the consequences of Vera's naiveté.
Although the "Vera Drake" DVD provides no bonus materials worth mentioning, I recommend it highly because the feature film is so worthwhile. On the next page, I've listed all the DVD's special features.