Vera Drake is no exception to this practice. Set in working-class London in the 1950s, it explores the path of a middle-aged woman who performs illegal abortions to young women in need. Vera (Imelda Staunton) is one of those truly kind-hearted souls who constantly helps out anyone and everyone around her. It's hard to imagine that someone that positive and giving may exist, but her charm and energetic encouragement easily win you over as genuine. She, her husband Stan (Phil Davis), and their two adult children share a cramped but warm apartment together.
The first half of the film is emotionally binding as we watch Vera care for a variety of neighbors and her mother and as she convinces local Reg (Eddie Marsan) to come by and be fed. Juxtaposed with her brief occupational scenes of cleaning for unhappy rich people and the discomfort of Stan's brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough) with his materialistic wife Joyce (Heather Craney), you quietly get the sense of how simple happiness can be when you appreciate the small connecting moments as in Vera's household.
The scenes of Vera with her patients are truly gripping in their variety of clients, the reactions of these women making such a huge decision, and Vera's steadying, empathetic nature. Instead of pushing some morality envelope of politics on the audience, Leigh wisely chooses to keep the much-debated operation within the confines of individual crisis.
Unfortunately, after Vera is apprehended when one of her patients becomes ill, the film falls into the clutches of watching Vera weep and the tediousness of London law. There are still a few powerful scenes, such as when Stan is asking their son to forgive Vera despite his own anger, but the emotional intensity that was so strongly built in the beginning falters with repeated close-ups of Vera crying.
This is especially disappointing as there are several tangents left unacknowledged after new information has come to the surface. During interrogation Vera finds out that her best friend from childhood was selling Vera's services unbeknownst to her, when Vera wouldn't have been charging for it to begin with. We never see or hear of Lily (Ruth Sheen) again, nor do we learn any punishment she must suffer, from either Vera or the law, based on her actions. To portray such an extreme betrayal and not follow through, after spending so much extra time on legal exactitudes, loses an enormous mental investment in the events.
Also a letdown is some of the character interaction in that you don't feel any chemistry between the players, as well written as the dialogue might be. Frank and Joyce don't really feel like a couple, and their scenes of her wanting more stuff while Frank grasps to keep his relationship with his brother together are repetitive and aggravating. It's also surprising that Lily and Vera are supposed to have been best friends for such a long period of time with their extremely divergent personality traits and Lily's cold conversational attitude.
But even given its focus faults, Vera Drake is still the work of a talented writer-director who manages to intelligently capture a difficult subject so rarely covered in film. Beautifully shot and impeccably acted with human interaction that remains easy to relate to though taking place in a different era, Vera Drake will keep your mind reeling well after leaving the theater. (Those interested in a similar story might consider Claude Chabrol's A Story of Women.)
Reviewed as part of the 2004 New York Film Festival.
Vera! Vera! What has become of you?
Run time: 125 mins
In Theaters: Friday 7th January 2005
Box Office USA: $3.6M
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Production compaines: Thin Man Films, Les Films Alain Sarde
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Fresh: 144 Rotten: 13
IMDB: 7.7 / 10
Director: Mike Leigh
Screenwriter: Mike Leigh
Starring: Imelda Staunton as Vera Drake, Sally Hawkins as Susan, Richard Graham as George, Eddie Marsan as Reg, Anna Keaveney as Nellie, Lesley Manville as Mrs. Wells, Daniel Mays as Sid, Simon Chandler as Mr. Wells, Chris O'Dowd as Sid's Customer, Adrian Scarborough as Frank, Ruth Sheen as Lily, Gerard Monaco as Kenny, Leo Bill as Kenny, Lesley Sharp as Jessie Barnes, Peter Wight as Det. Inspector Webster, Martin Savage as Det. Sergeant Vickers, Jim Broadbent as Judge, Alex Kelly as Ethel
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