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VERA DRAKE
U.S. Release Date: October 8, 2004
Distributor: Fine Line
Director: Mike Leigh
Writer: Mike Leigh
Cast: Imelda Staunton, Eddie Marsan, Lesley Manville, Sally Hawkins
Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (depiction of strong thematic material)

Martyred Motherhood Stalls Abortion Drama
by Scott Holleran

To borrow the movie's tag line, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake offers Imelda Staunton as a wife, mother and criminal. She also happens to be the friendliest lady in the neighborhood and perfectly willing to break the law and terminate unwanted pregnancies. She does so at a steady clip for much of the movie.

The promise of a juicy 1950's drama is a plus. Some may not remember that having an abortion, until relatively recently, was illegal in the West (and with religious radicals who bomb clinics and murder doctors, few today are willing to practice the procedure). But Vera Drake is no deeper than its tag line; it has less to do with a medical dilemma than with the idea that sacrifice is noble. Its power depends on one's moral estimate of abortion.

Based in Britain following the war against Nazi Germany, Vera Drake portrays man as powerless—through its depiction of woman as victim—within a pro-socialist context. Writer and director Leigh builds Vera up specifically to take her down and, once he does, all that's left is the old ball and chain. From Mildred Pierce to Meryl Streep, this has been done a gazillion times.

Staunton's abortionist, whose clinical method goes unexplained, is a maid for a wealthy family. Vera loves her own family—loyal hubby, proud son, shy daughter—and she tends to relatives, veterans and strangers with a kindness that is both sincere and unimposing. Whenever the occasion to heal someone's wounds arises, jolly Vera generously makes a kettle of tea and takes care of others.

She does so without a whiff of sanctimony. Possessed of the pleasant demeanor one associates with a welcome routine, Vera's motives provide the movie's intellectual mystery: what causes a plain woman to risk her life to defy church and state? Vera Drake soon answers with a familiar refrain. Vera is arrested when one of the girls in trouble gets sick and her mother rats Vera out to the police. This is when Leigh's movie goes limp.

Nearly everyone in the movie holds abortion as a necessary evil, not as a rational choice. A prospective son-in-law, a war-ravaged chap who knows the effects of unwanted pregnancy, is the sole voice of reason. But he says too little, and he says it too late. For her part, Vera is the altruistic abortionist, justifying her acts as acceptable because she is helping others. With the immorality of the crime presumably self-evident, Vera is pitiful. Moved by what happens to her rather than by free choice, she shuffles between assignments without payment and without thinking of logistics. It is not enough that Vera is not paid—her middleman (in this case, a woman) is the requisite evil businessman.

Leigh further invokes the anti-capitalist mentality with his characterization of a rich girl—impregnated with a rapist's seed—who gets her abortion while the poor are left to bleed. Of course, the rich do get better abortions—and other medical treatment—when government controls medicine.

But, the point is lost in this movie. Through no fault of Staunton's, who turns from laughter to tears—and whose best scenes come early—Vera Drake is merely a martyred mother, slogging around and making everyone miserable. At least the rich, pregnant rape victim, while violated, is rid of a burden she did not choose to bear. The same cannot be said of Vera, whose heavy load crushes her upright former self, making Vera Drake another sacrificial mother movie with an unmistakably anti-abortion message.

DVD Notes
A basic disc with no bonus features. The subtitles—which may be useful for those struggling with thick British accents—appear in fast flashes (review disc subtitles skipped).


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