“She’s gonna get herself in trouble one of these days”
I’m pretty sure that Vera Drake was actually the first Mike Leigh film I saw, and what a cracker it is. It really is an extraordinary performance from Imelda Staunton as the perma-humming cheerful soul with a positive word and deed for everyone around her, the nice suggestion of putting the kettle on being the remedy for everything and her kindly demeanour drawing people close to her.
Vera’s family life is perfectly drawn too: the drudgery of post-war working-class existence in no way stinted on and the different ways it has affected people clearly evident in her children, Daniel Mays making the best of things as a cheery chatty tailor and Alex Kelly’s cowed Ethel, somewhat diminished by life as a light-bulb tester. With Phil Davis completing the family unit, there’s such genuine connectivity to these scenes, a real sense of family life being lived and a gorgeous flicker of romance brightening Ethel’s life, that the knock on the door as the law finally catches up with Vera really does come as a genuine heart-wrenching kick as their lives are shattered by the revelation that she has been carrying out illegal abortions, or just ‘helping some girls out’ as she puts it.
It is surely a testament to Leigh’s reputation that practically every single role in this film, no matter how small, is occupied by some kind of classy actor of note (as determined by me of course) so much so that the cast list of people I’ve seen stretches over three posts! Whether it is Leo Bill’s bartering bloke in the pub, Fenella Woolgar’s cake-sampling friend, Allan Corduner’s psychiatrist or Chris O’Dowd’s Irish wedding guest, or a trio of young women going through the trauma of choosing to have an abortion, all given emotionally compelling life by Sinéad Matthews, Vinette Robinson and Liz White. And then there’s Lesley Sharp’s prickly, protective mother who is the catalyst for the tragic turn of events as she lashes out to save herself.
And of course there are his more regular collaborators: Lesley Manville in brutal cigarette smoking form as an unsympathetic mother; Sally Hawkins finding traumatic depths as a victim of a date rape, Ruth Sheen blisteringly good as the black marketeer who serves as the go-between for the women who need Vera’s services; Eddie Marsan as salt-of-the-earth Reg, swapping war stories over a fag and a brew; Peter Wight’s firm but not unfeeling detective. Taking the honours for me though is Helen Coker’s WPC in a performance of such beautifully detailed compassion that is etched into her very face and making what could have been a minor role feel like a thoroughly fleshed out character and a perfect companion to the simply heartbreaking sight of Vera crumpling further and further as she sits through her court case.
Leigh comes back to issues of class time and time again in his work and there’s no difference here. The difference in experience of working class women and their upper class counterparts in the choices available to them when it comes to abortions being the clearest, but there’s also the divergence within families. The social aspirations of Heather Craney’s forcefully scary Joyce pulling Adrian Scarborough’s Frank further away from his brother Stan, Vera’s husband, a relationship already strained by being employer/employee as well. Craney’s manhandling of Scarborough in bed is terrifyingly uncomfortable but forceful viewing.
And with such a contentious subject as abortion, there’s a remarkable even-handedness about its portrayal, the different reasons – families that are already too big, rape, casual carelessness – that women feel pushed to it gently suggested without being forced on us and their different reactions to it demonstrating the complexity of the issue. If anything, the film emerges as an appeal for frankness about the issue – not so much pro or anti as just asking for acceptance that it is something that is horrendously real, must be dealt with and not swept under the carpet. And in Vera’s quiet acceptance of her fate, and resolution in the face of her actions, there’s a powerful argument for keeping this debate as open as possible.