UK, directed by Mike Leigh
starring Imelda Staunton
Imelda Staunton is utterly amazing in her portrayal of a Vera Drake, a loving wife and mother whose good intentions destroy her family. Writer-director Mike Leigh has done it again, assembling a top-notch cast in this absorbing and thought-provoking drama about ordinary, every day people dealing with the unthinkable.
Set in 1950, Vera scrubs floors by day, cares for her aging mother, and makes a happy home for her working-class husband and two grown children. Though the film is shot in an almost grainy palate of British drab, there’s a light that shines from Vera. She’s no Snow White, but she puts the best face on everything and looks on the bright side. Everyone knows she has a heart of gold.
What her friends and family don’t know is that Vera is an abortionist, or as she puts it, she “helps girls out, what need help.” When one girl nearly dies following a procedure, the authorities are informed, Vera is arrested, and her family learns the devastating truth. (It’s interesting to note that while shooting the film, no one other than Staunton and director Mike Leigh knew what Vera’s secret was. When the actors portraying her family–all of whom truly embody these characters–shot the scenes where they learn the truth, they’re actually hearing it for the first time.)
That the double life Vera leads has to do with abortion isn’t really the issue and people who get hung up on that are missing the point. Contrary to what you might think, this isn’t a film about abortion, the right or wrong of what Vera’s done, women’s issues, or any travesty of justice. It’s a character study and a deceptively simple slice of life, focusing on a nuclear family that’s blown apart by the actions, no matter how good or bad, of one member.
It’s a shame that having garnered acting awards around the globe for her performance, Imelda Staunton was denied the ultimate acting kudos, the Oscar, for this once-in-a-lifetime role. We can only hope that like fellow actor Jim Broadbent, Staunton will join the troop of Mike Leigh regulars and be gifted by the director with future acting gems like this. [*****]