Vera Drake is set in the 1950’s, an austere time, but nevertheless fondly remembered as one in which people supported each other and ‘got on with it’. Vera is a happy-go-lucky woman with the best intentions; open, caring and genuinely friendly, sometimes to the point of being irritating. She is happily married with two older children, and the family lives a comfortable working-class life.
Aside from Vera’s day job of being a maid, she also ‘helps people out’ by assisting in illegal abortions. After one such operation nearly leaves a young girl dead, Vera faces a possible prison sentence, shattering her life as well as that of her family.
The idealistic way in which the Drake family go about their life in the early part of the film makes tragedy seem inevitable from the start. Through the modern viewer’s eyes, the chirpy cockneyness of the characters may seem over-theatrical, but this ultimately serves to strengthen the sudden irruption of an all-too-real tragedy into the narrative.
Imelda Staunton is incredible as Vera Drake. Early in the film Vera’s constant smile and endless charitable nature may irritate some cynics. However, the contrast between this character and the broken woman she becomes after her arrest hits home hard and makes you realise that there was no pretence behind her kindly demeanour. Staunton’s performance is the driving force behind Mike Leigh‘s fascination with the fall from melodramatic idealism into tragedy.
Being so gripped by Leigh’s trademark polarisation of the viewer’s emotions, you could easily overlook the way the ever-present theme of abortion is tackled in the film. Vera’s innocent, but ignorant, view on it as ‘helping young girls out’ highlights the difficulty of the issue. She performs the operation across the whole social spectrum; from apathetic middle-class women for whom abortion is as routine as Sunday lunch, to rape victims. As such, whether she is ultimately ‘helping’ them remains, as it does today, ambiguous.
While Vera Drake‘s strong themes may encourage the film to be read as something of a moral statement, Leigh’s primary interest has always been that of contrasts, be it between theatricality and realism or comedy and tragedy. For him, settings, characters, and themes are all tools in these interests, and Vera Drake continues this trend in truly devastating fashion.
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