Mike Leigh has made a career out of downbeat movies about people in miserable situations. In carefully parsing the minute details of the struggling working class, he's come up with insights into human interaction on a large scale. Leigh's latest film, Vera Drake, is, like much of his work, a difficult viewing experience, but it's also a rich and rewarding one, a challenge more than worth meeting.
The title character (Imelda Staunton) is a London housecleaner in 1950, scuttling about from mansion to mansion, polishing the brass of the wealthy. Kindly and modest, Vera spends her free time helping others, from tending to her bedridden mother to inviting a lonely neighbor over for dinner to looking in on a wheelchair-bound friend. And she "helps young girls out," as she puts it, her euphemism for performing illicit abortions. This she does with the same good nature and care as everything else, always offering her standard cure-all of a nice cup of tea when her patients get skittish.
Vera lives modestly with her mechanic husband, Stan (Phil Davis); shy, mousy daughter, Ethel (Alex Kelly); and playboy son, Sid (Daniel Mays). Though not rich like Vera's housecleaning clients, they get along well enough and seem like a genuinely happy family. Vera takes a simple, altruistic pleasure in setting up the painfully shy Ethel with the equally shy neighbor she keeps inviting over for dinner. There's a certain portent to these simple scenes of domestic bliss, though, as we know that Vera's clandestine activities are going to catch up with her sooner or later.
Catch up they do, and that's when Leigh really turns up the tragedy, but it all flows organically from what has come before. Like all of Leigh's films, Vera Drake was developed collaboratively with his stars, and the actors truly embody their characters. Staunton especially is just phenomenal, giving a performance of heartbreaking depth and sincerity. While she probably won't win the Academy Award for which she's been nominated, Staunton definitely gives the best performance in the field, conveying all of Vera's complex emotions with just the smallest change in expression or inflection.
Without preaching, Leigh demonstrates the devastating effects of the illegality of abortion, while keeping his focus on the well-rounded characters at the center of the film. He subtly but clearly illustrates the class differences in dealing with unwanted pregnancies, as the daughter of one of Vera's wealthy clients goes off to a safe, sanitary hospital to dispatch her problem. It's easy to imagine a film about this subject coming off as offensive, patronizing or pedantic; there are few issues so morally divisive as abortion.
But Leigh lays out what happens to his characters in a clear, straightforward manner, allowing actions to speak for themselves. Whatever your stance on abortion, you can appreciate the way Leigh and his cast draw flawed human characters who are only doing their best to make life worth living. Although Vera, the abortionist, is the most sympathetic figure, Leigh doesn't turn the anti-abortion forces into one-dimensional villains, nor does he allow those providing abortions to appear as saints. One character in particular, the woman who acts as a proxy between Vera and her clients, is clearly far more venal and self-serving than any of the police or doctors who are just doing their jobs.
At the same time, this is certainly a political film and the pro-choice message comes through loud and clear. Unlike other recent movies with social messages (John Sayles' Silver City comes to mind), though, it doesn't hammer home its message at the expense of characterization or storytelling. It's just as much a film about the value of family and the way one person's ideals can put her entire life in jeopardy. Vera doesn't come off as a martyr; Leigh and Staunton make her a believable and fascinating character at the center of an exceptional drama.