Film — Vera Drake (R)

Vera Drake (R)

by Amy Diaz

Never has the indifferent American health care system looked so good as it does after seeing the unfortunate circumstances of lower-income girls who get “in trouble” in 1950 Britain in the bleak but moving Vera Drake.

Ah, HMO, I know I don’t always appreciate you. I grumble at your premiums, I wince at your limited provisions. But, get a gander at the middle-aged woman with a cheese grater and a pan of water that seems to be the organized-care alternative and suddenly Blue Cross doesn’t look so bad.

Sure, Vera Drake (the elfish Imelda Stauton) is all sweet sensibleness and grandmotherly in her calling everyone “dear.” She hums as she cleans the homes of the well-to-do and tends to the ill and elderly and she smiles as she fixes a hearty dinner for her own family. She’s kind to neighbors and solicitous to everyone — offering to make tea for shy bachelor Reg (Eddie Marsan) and not just because he makes a good match for her equally introverted daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly). And when lifelong friend Lily (Ruth Sheen) asks Vera to perform abortions for local girls, Vera does so equally cheerily and with no expectation or thought of getting paid. But, despite the kindness, when Vera shows up with her bag of instruments — a cheese grater, a cake of soap, a tube and a syringe — you can’t help but shiver and cringe. After all, Vera’s patients have nowhere else to go (one woman is a mother of seven who says she just won’t have any more; the ones she’s got are killing her) but you can feel the ominous overtones of a medical procedure performed in someone’s bedroom with rather unsterile equipment.

Of course, the point of this Mike Leigh (the film’s writer and director) exercise is that, even in 1950 London, it’s not that way for everyone. One of the wealthy women Vera cleans house for has a daughter who also gets in a family way. Vibrating with mousy fear and hysteria, this somewhat well-to-do girl does not have to turn to a semi-skilled abortion-performer like Vera. She jumps through a series of hoops — buy off this doctor, scam that psychiatrist — and then has her procedure performed at a clean, comfortable hospital.

Poverty is bleak and, even in modern England, divisions in class can mean the difference between life and death. Vera’s family members are all employed and the family is relatively comfortable but they clearly live on something of a financial edge. Were Ethel to suddenly find herself “in trouble,” the 100 pounds needed for one of the hospital abortions would be completely out of her league.

More than abortion, this is what the movie is about — class and the impact of class on family relations. When Vera’s actions come out, her family seems to take rather predictable sides. The new-money wife of Vera’s husband’s brother is upset by not the abortions, really, but how the scandal of Vera’s arrest could affect the woman’s attempts at social climbing. Likewise, Vera’s grown son Sid (Daniel Mays), a natty dresser and a quick talker, takes a very black-and-white approach to his mother’s actions, condemning her out of  some vague belief that she’s done wrong. It’s left to Vera’s naive but loyal husband (Richard Graham) and her simple-seeming daughter to silently defend her.

The movie is very gray, very gritty and yet, at times, rather stagy. Without being all that political — it’s clearly pro-choice, but really more for reasons of class than anything else — Vera Drake has the drab, somewhat depressing feel of an op-ed in The Nation (or for that matter, in National Review — liberal or conservative, none of those “idea” magazines are all that lively). Toward the end of the movie, the minimalist approach to acting sort of devolves into wordless stammers. I get that the Drakes’ working-class status might make them fearful of the law and the justice system, but I don’t see why that requires that they act like simpletons.

Stauton’s performance is truly an extraordinary one but it isn’t luminous enough to cut through the gloom of the rest of the movie.

- Amy Diaz

 
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