I wish Vera Drake were my mother. She’s just my type. A bustling woman, no-nonsense but unfailingly kind, with small, bright eyes that barely blink and never flinch, she’s that rare breed who transcended crap beginnings to build a better life for herself and everyone else. That British director Mike Leigh — whose career transcended crap beginnings of its own, especially regarding the woman question (um, Naked?) — bore her renders Drake an even more compelling candidate to be My New Mom. (Though I already have a lovely one of my own, you can’t stop a girl from looking.)
If you overlook last year’s misstep All or Nothing, Leigh’s oeuvre has steadily bloomed over the last decade. I’m a sucker for talky, ensemble movies anyway, but Leigh’s shine where many spoil: He trusts both his viewers and his actors. Directors like Spike Lee and John Sayles’ films strain, sacrificing nuances to admittedly worthy political agendas. Leigh’s camera instead visits seemingly casually with each storyline, lingering just long enough for a cup of tea. And whereas ’70s cats like Robert Altman tend to throw out a messy, if often gorgeous, sprawl at his audience, Leigh whittles his actors’ improvisations (based on already-developed plot points) to a body of quiet precision. That said, nothing in Leigh’s earlier work quite prefigured Vera Drake , the story of a cleaning woman and home-spun abortionist in 1950 working-class London.
The always-affecting Imelda Staunton may have something to do with it. A very physical actress, Staunton uses her tiny stature and plump features to cast just how pleasant, how well-intentioned, how benign her Vera is. She tends to her ailing neighbors and slag of a mum; clucks over, feeds, and even finds matches for her oddly baby-faced adult children; hums as she cleans her chilly employers’ homes; tucks in with her hubby for a bit of a middle-aged cuddle; and uses disinfectant and soapy water to help locals girls out of a spot of trouble. It’s like that. She’s a happy woman, and she labors quite literally to help others achieve a happiness, too.
Visually, Leigh’s movies are typically nothing much (Topsy Turvy being a notable exception), and Vera Drake, dressed in the brown and green drab of mid-century working class London, is downright dreary. It works. Tiny Vera sweeps into tableau after tableau so abject you think they can’t possibly be cheered — and cheers them armed with nothing but a tea kettle and, well, some soapy water. Sure, abortions are illegal, and, sure, at least for poor women, they’re terribly dangerous, but for a while you’re lulled into believing there’s no blight so terrible Vera can’t singlehandedly smooth it all out.
When the axe does fall, it does so with a mighty thwack. One of Vera’s clients suffers complications and an ensuing investigation leads the authorities right to her family’s door amid her daughter’s engagement celebration. As the policemen, imposing in brass and buttons, crowd into her tiny bedroom, they dwarf her and her apartment. It’s a tiny, shabby world she inhabits after all, the image suggests. An obvious visual trick, but one saved by Staunton. She falters, her features crumple, her body goes slack, her eyes go red and wet, she stammers. When she does finally speak — I know why you are here, she whispers — the hush of her voice, the droop of her neck, is terrible. Her defeat, a fate she’s been struggling to subvert her entire life, is total, and she shrinks from a working-class hero into a frightened old woman.
From here on, she’s whisked into the maze of the British judicial system, and her family is left to sort out her story. No one really does, nor does Leigh ask them to. In the film’s last scenes, she ends up in jail. No longer cheery but no longer quite so diminished either, she listens with an inscrutable expression to two other abortionists much more blasé about their transgressions. Her family sits numbly around a dining table in silence.
We never find out how Vera got into the abortion business, nor how it is that she kept it so completely separate from the rest of her life. Leigh’s never been one for moralizing or even psychologizing in his films, and he doesn’t begin to be here. In a subplot, a daughter of one of Drake’s employers is date-raped and then obtains a tidy abortion for a tidy sum. It’s pat, maybe, but the point is clear. Like it or not, women who are “caught” will always pursue options out, and it’s mostly the poor ones who won’t escape physically unscathed. The film’s lack of interrogation in itself makes a point: Why should Drake need a reason to treat these girls? They need help, and she helps them.
Leigh doesn’t normally show much sentiment, but in Vera Drake he has nonetheless made a woman to love, to cherish, to protect. By the film’s end, when the screen flashes a dedication to his midwife parents, it’s clear that the personal — and the persona — is political after all, even for Leigh. And thank God.
Postmodernism (and arts and crafts Busting) in lieu of more nuts-and-bolts feminism is all fine and good when we’re sitting on our basic rights as women. But if those bozos score another four years, soon we’ll all be sitting in soapy hot water. In Vera Drake Mike Leigh has established more effectively than any movie in a long while why some of the tenets of the second wave of feminism need to be front and center. We cannot go back to that drab, small place.