In Vera Drake, Director Mike Leigh tackles a subject most directors would scoot away from as fast as their Ferraris could take them: abortion. This movie was nominated for several Oscars, including a deserved best actress nomination for Imelda Staunton who plays the titular character. When I sat down to watch this movie, I was wondering how on earth anyone could (or would even want to) tackle such an explosive, divisive subject.
Vera Drake concerns a critical point in the life of a middle-aged woman who works hard as a maid for several well-to-do families, makes rounds to help out her more invalid neighbors, and manages to take care of her mother, husband and two grown children with great love and good cheer. Oh, and she also performs abortions on desperate women who can’t afford the nudge-nudge-wink-wink "professional" operations that the richer families can pay for.
At first we spend a great deal of time getting to know Vera and her family, and we get to understand that what she does comes from the goodness of her heart. Then one day one of her abortions goes awry, with a woman ending up in the hospital, and the police show up on Vera's doorstep. The rest of the movie concerns her arrest, the horrific realization of the severity of her crimes, and the effect they are having on her family.
Vera Drake successfully tackles this subject by not making abortion the complete focus of the movie. The main focus is Vera herself, her family, and the 1950’s poor English culture she lives in. We see why she performs these illegal operations, we learn enough about the women who are having them done, and we even understand the illegality and wrongness of these acts even when we are sympathetic to the people involved. No one in this movie comes off as a megaphone for someone’s views on the subject; all of the characters are very human and have understandable reactions to the events that unfold.
Imelda Staunton’s performance is dead on and fantastic as we watch her go from a cheery, loving wife and helper to a horrified, depressed convict. She is aided by a perfect supporting cast and the unflinching but gentle direction of Mike Leigh. This movie never resorts to histrionics or ‘straw man’ situations (nothing is forced on us to make us think or feel one way or another). Despite slow pacing and a length of over two hours, I was fully drawn into this woman’s life and troubles. If I have any problems it is with the subject itself – why would anyone want to deliberately watch a movie about a woman who performs back-alley abortions?
I must take Warner Home Video to task for this release. Yes, the sound and picture are just fine. The movie mostly contains talking and despite the English accents and idioms I had no trouble following what people were saying. The disc’s picture showcases the cinematography well, but we are talking about a 1950’s poor English neighborhood (translation: lots and lots of browns). What I’m cheesed about is there are no extras whatsoever. We only get the original theatrical trailer, which should be included on every disc without question.
Other than the trailer, the disc purports to have some DVD-ROM features. They feature nothing about Vera Drake and only contain web sites to various New Line projects. Was anybody paying attention when this disc was put together? Who thought it was a good idea to link to a site featuring Dumb and Dumberer? Sure, the Galadriel Barbie and Legolas Ken dolls on the New Line shopping site might be amusing, but how about including a director’s commentary? Why did Mike Leigh take on such a volatile subject? This movie was nominated for awards both in the United States and Britain. Why does this disc get the brush-off with such a perfunctory release?
To try to answer my previous question about the subject matter, remember that Writer/Director Mike Leigh made a movie about people. He attempted to make us look through their eyes and understand what was going on and he never once tried to side with anyone on abortion. Without going into details about my own views, at the very least I try to understand why people do what they do and this is why I like this movie as much as I do. If this movie has any merit, it is because it succeeds in making us empathize with everyone. Vera Drake is a fine film and I highly recommend it. Just be sure that, if you watch it, you know what you are getting into. A party-time laugh-fest it ain’t.