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More often than not I tend to opt for comedy films or your standard chick flick simply because I enjoy a nice laid back watch that doesn't require too much concentration. However recently I decided that I should really broaden my film and book choices and I began to work my way through the psychological films that were being shown on netflix. I actually found this film when it popped up after I had watched another film (Oranges and Sunshine - please see review). After reading the short description of the film I was intrigued by the plot so I was keen to watch it. As I watched this on netflix it is a film only review.
It is 1950s London. The war is over and families are now piecing their lives back together and carrying on with day to day life, grateful of the absence of the air raid siren. Vera Drake is a happily married mother. Her children are all grown up now but they remain a very close family. Her daughter, Ethel hasn't quite managed to grow up like the boys and as a result of this she is often milling about the house with nothing to do. Vera doesn't mind having Ethel about in the slightest but she dreams that one day someone will ask for Ethel's hand in marriage.
Vera works as a cleaner in the big houses whilst her husband runs his own garage with one of their sons. The family is far from well off but they are happy and in Veras eyes happiness is everything. That's why she does what she does...you see Vera isn't just a cleaner. In her spare time she assists women in bringing on abortions, something that was highly illegal at the time and socially unacceptable. Vera does it for the girls and the girls only and understands how a baby could change people's lives. But is she doing the right thing?
The subject of this film is without a doubt an extremely controversial topic. My initial thoughts were along the lines of 'how can she do that? She is helping to kill what could be babies, how can a mother do that, does she have no conscience? ' But almost as soon as the film began it was clear to me why she did what she did. Of course, 60 years ago public opinion was very different - a child out of wedlock was extremely rare and frowned upon. Of course nowadays nobody bats an eyelid but it is easy to appreciate why some of the women did not feel that they could have a child. The characters in the film included a victim of rape, a woman who had embarked upon an extra marital affair and a mother of seven.
I thought I wouldn't like the character of Vera but the way she is presented it is quite hard not to become fond of her. She really is a lovely lady who is kind and gentle and more than willing to take people under her wing. Her family adored her and every evening when they sat down to dinner it was hard to believe what Vera got up to beforehand.
When the first procedure took place I did do my normal withdrawing back from the screen and being ready to shut my eyes but thankfully the film deals with the issue as discreetly as possible. When I saw Vera's equipment I was a little relieved as I have heard horror stories about knitting needles numerous times. Vera seemed to take a much calmer approach which was much more gentle for the women involved.
I thought the acting in the film was of a first class standard. The plot is I imagine a very difficult subject matter to create a character around as an actor but I really didn't see this as a story and more like a fictional documentary which I suppose it is as it is based on women of the time though the director has said Vera is not based on one individual in particular.
I found the film captivating and although it wasn't particularly action packed I found I was hooked and I was desperate to discover whether Vera would carry on, if her family would find out etc. I thought the ending was done very well and I felt everything was covered in a good amount of detail. The ending was a little predictable but I wasn't sure exactly what would happen so I was pleased enough with the build up of suspense etc.
The film was released in 2004.
It has a run time of approximately 2 hours.
I read somewhere that it has a rating of a 12A which I personally believe is a little low due to the subject matter.
It stars Imelda Staunton as Vera.
Other actors include Philip Davis, Daniel Mays and Adrian Scarborough.
It was written and directed by Mike Leigh.
The subject matter of this film is undoubtedly a very controversial matter that many people will have strong views about. I have tried to write this review in an unbiased manner and so I hope it comes across this way as personally I believe that although we make immediate assumptions, we cannot fully understand something until we have been through it ourselves which, thankfully I have no experience of.
This film is a very good film and I found it a captivating watch. It was very interesting and I believe it did a very good job of telling both sides of the story. Imelda Staunton does a superb job of playing Vera. Recommended.
The story of this film begins with the life of Vera. She is happily married and has a good relationship with her children. Her daughter Ethel works for a lighting company while her son Sid is a succefull tailor. Her husband Stanley is a mechanic. Vera works as a housekeeper for many families. But she herself has also a secondary profession. She works to help young girls or older to commit an abortion. For the period from 1950 where the story takes place it was actually a pretty big taboo. So many women went to such amateur nurses. Vera does the job for several years. Because she just tries to help people while Lily asks big money for what Vera does, which Vera doesn't even know about. Unfortunately one of the operations involving a young girl named Pamela Barns doesn't go well and is just in time saved in hospital. Of course she is put under pressure to confess and the police are therefore quickly turned on Vera.
The structure of the story is substantively quite well built. You get to know Vera as you see her in her daily life. In the first phase of the story you see her just having a normal job while suddenly a girl turns up would need an abortion. Her family has no idea of what their mother is doing. But of course she runs into trouble. The acting is very good and they have emotional roles which maintain the realism of the story in a very high level. It then creates a good immersive effect that makes the movie from beginning to end interesting.
I got this movie as an present. You get a pretty powerful concept presented about a woman that helps young girls in a positive way trying to help with an abortion without having to actually observe the consequences that they could endanger someone's life with her amateurish practices. The cast of actors is substantively very well chosen and they all play their roles with great enthusiasm. The realism of the story is therefore on a very high level. In conclusion I recommend this film certainly as long as you like a heavy psychological story.
RELEASED: 2004, Cert.12
RUNNING TIME: Approx. 123 mins
DIRECTOR/WRITER: Mike Leigh
PRODUCER: Simon Channing-Williams
Imelda Staunton as Vera Drake
Philip Davis as Stan Drake
Alex Kelly as Ethel Drake
Eddie Marsan as Reg
Daniel Mays as Sid
Ruth Sheen as Lily
Richard Graham as George
(Also stars: Jim Broadbent, Sinead Matthews, Sally Hawkins, Lesley Manville, Sam Troughton, Marion Bailey)
FILM ONLY REVIEW
The year is 1950.
The Drake family live in a small tenement flat in London's King's Cross. Vera is a warm, loving woman with a gentle nature who spends her time both caring for her family and helping other people. She and her calm, softly-spoken, kind-hearted husband Stan idolise each other and together (Stan works as a motor mechanic with his brother) they create a supportive and loving - albeit poor - home environment for their two grown-up children....the outgoing, friendly Sid and the meek, mild, shy Ethel.
As well as visiting her elderly mother on a daily basis to make sure she is OK, Vera pops in to see various neighbours in the vicinity who are ill or don't cope too well with life in various ways. She also finds time to clean a wealthy woman's house.
Vera is a pillar of the community who is much loved by her family and neighbours, but there is something else she does that her family is completely unaware of. Using a combination of rubber tubing, grated carbolic soap and hot water, Vera performs illegal back street abortions on women who she is sent to by her rather shady friend Lily, an attitude-ish, stroppy woman who is into black market dealings, selling foodstuffs to the community which are still on ration at highly inflated prices....and, selling abortions to desperate women for which Vera doesn't receive a penny as she is unaware that Lily makes a lot of money from these women. Vera performs the abortions on a purely non-profit, compassionate basis, giving what she views as a much needed helping hand to women who find themselves pregnant and don't want the baby, or their life circumstances preclude having a child.
Vera's treatment of the women she performs abortions for is kind, yet she manages to retain a necessary distance from them - she does her work, gently advises them on what to expect in the ensuing hours, then calmly packs her things away and leaves.
When Vera carries out an abortion on a young girl who as a result nearly dies, she (Vera) is arrested and charged, much to the shock of her family. Vera had been identified by the girl's mother who remembered her from when they'd worked together at a laundry just before WW2 began.
That is the crux of what the film is all about, but there are several other small strings to the story. To discover what those strings are and what happens to Vera and her family, you must watch it yourself.
As isn't unusual in Mike Leigh films, Vera Drake concentrates on the day to day life of a working class family. Often, his productions centre around quirky characters, but everybody in the Vera Drake movie comes across as reasonably normal and ordinary. Mike Leigh also frequently sets his stories such that there are comparisons within between people from different social classes and working people's lives will often be held up against and contrasted with those of the wealthy. In the early part of the film, Vera Drake's lower working-class lifestyle, together with that of her friends and neighbours, is in sharp divide from the wealthy socialite whose house she cleans. Yet another common feature through most of Mike Leigh's work is somebody having a secret, and the film Vera Drake is no exception as it is Vera's secret which is its backbone.
I feel that every actor played his or her part with a finesse that doesn't fall even the tiniest bit short of true perfection. My favourite characters are Vera herself, beautifully and sensitively delivered by Imelda Staunton...a rather dowdy lady with a big, big heart that brims with love and care, who apart from when carrying out her abortions, always sings as she works. My other favourite is her husband Stan, into which Philip Davis injected a quality of tender, quiet and gentle warmth.
For me, the atmosphere of post-WW2 bleakness and austerity was created perfectly in the film...a typical slum tenement in London's shabby King's Cross, 'under the table' wheeling and dealing from Lily as she touted her goods which were unavailable in the shops due to rationing still being in place, and the general plainness of people's clothes, home décor etc. Being born in 1954, I can remember that whole atmosphere being very prevalent in working class society when I was a small child...and rationing was still in force at the time of my birth, although I have no memory of it as I was only three weeks old when it was lifted altogether. The warmth of human relationships in the film Vera Drake struck me, leaving me feeling wistful and nostalgic of times long past...as I have clear memories of the neighbourhood in which I spent my childhood as being very similar.
Abortion didn't become legal until 1967 and prior to that time, it wasn't uncommon for women to seek help from people like Vera. During that post-WW2 period (and of course before), contraception was far less sophisticated than it is nowadays, and although premarital sex was still very much frowned upon, women did sometimes overstep the social mark which society had set for them - also and far more seriously, women who became pregnant through being raped would have had nobody to turn to were it not for people like Vera. Also, sex education was sparse and in certain sections of society may have been completely non-existent. There is one point within the film which touches on the issue of sparse contraception, or even total ignorance of, when Vera visits a woman living in desperate poverty with her husband and six children. The woman has to wait until her husband is asleep before she can allow Vera to perform the abortion, as she explains that he'd not agree with it....this woman is truly desperate and frantically keeps repeating to Vera that she just can't have any more children, as there are already six of them plus her husband and herself all sharing a poky 2-roomed squalid flat. Bearing those things in mind, not only did Vera herself believe she was providing a compassionate and very necessary service....her 'customers' also thought the same.
Vera Drake is a wonderfully acted film about a highly sensitive topic and although it isn't my no.1 favourite offering from Mike Leigh, it is close to the top.
Some people may find the beginning part of the film a little slow, but that's typical of Mike Leigh's productions in that they aren't supposed to dive straight into the plot....not all of his films have plots, although this one does...they are a study of ordinary people's lives, human relationships and generally how skeletons flying out of closets test those relationships.
I'd hazard a guess that anybody who is an ardent fan of Mike Leigh's work would enshrine the film Vera Drake, placing it (like myself) close to the top of the tree of all his productions - maybe for some it would be at the top?
My only recommendation is......watch it.......but it's not for those of you who like lots of action, car chases, slasher psychos, romps or anything like that. Vera Drake is more like a long television play of the ilk shown on TV a lot in the late 1970s/early 1980s...and, quite a few of those TV plays from that era were penned and directed by the great Mike Leigh himself.
At the time of writing and for anybody who hasn't seen Vera Drake but would like to, it can be purchased on Amazon as follows:-
New: from £1.50 to £17.99
Used: from 79p to £5.00
Collectible: One copy available at £5.95
A delivery charge of £1.26 should be added to the above figures.
Currently Vera Drake can be viewed on YouTube and has been uploaded in 14 parts, each lasting between 9 and 10 minutes - the final part is just over 4 minutes and is mostly comprised of the film's closing credits. I did watch this upload of Vera Drake on YouTube a couple of years ago, and although the picture quality was good, the sound was extremely quiet and I found I could only hear the dialogue if I used headphones plugged into my computer with all volume controls set to maximum....even then it was a strain. Due to the slowness of the computer I am currently using, I'm afraid I'm unable to check and see if the person who uploaded the film onto YouTube has since made any positive adjustments to the sound levels.
Thanks for reading!
~~ Also published on Ciao under my CelticSoulSister user name ~~
Vera Drake is a film set in the 1950s which deals with the subject of abortion. The film is named after the woman in the film, Vera Drake, who is a normal housewife, but she helps women who want abortions.
I very much like films which have a message and make you think, and I additionally liked this film because it doesn't dictate what you should think about the issues in the film, but presents them in a way which lets you make your own mind up about the issues.
The film is very different to many in so much as that great chunks of the dialogue are improvised. Indeed I read that when the film was nominated for a major award for its script, they actually had to write a script from the film itself, as none had existed.
The film was directed by Mike Leigh, and in general, the plot consists of the family which is run by Vera Drake and her family, and then lots of individuals who needed help with their abortion. The director made sure that each actor was only aware of their part in the film, and they were unaware that many scenes were about to happen.
Without giving too much away plot-wise, there is a stage when Vera Drake is arrested after an abortion goes wrong. Vera Drake is played by the actress Imelda Staunton, and they didn't notify her that the actors playing the police officers were coming, so when they arrived to question and arrest her, the actress had to improvise her scenes. It really works, she looks and acts in the film so realistically, and in my view, Leigh's brave idea really pays off.
Staunton plays her role superbly and really is the mainstay of the film. Her acting is very realistic, the sets are very genuine, and at times it almost looked like a documentary, such was the realism of the film and the atmosphere it tried to create.
The film lasts for over two hours, but never feels long, with such good dialogue, I found myself feeling genuinely sorry for Vera Drake, as she took no money for the abortions which she did, she simply did them "to help out".
The film does though question, through Vera Drake's son, about whether the practice is illegal (or was at the time, abortion was made easier in the late 1960s after a bill introduced by David Steel) for good reason, and does anyone have the right to end the life of an unborn child. It's not for me to say either way which I think, but this film does create a discussion.
I'm aware that there is also some discussion about whether the film should have shown how Vera Drake performed the abortions, and the use of a syringe and disinfectant. However, in my view, the film would have lacked credibility if they had admitted that part, and although it's not for me to say whether any viewer of the film might try and recreate it, I found the director handled the issue well and sensibly.
On the down-side, the DVD itself is a disappointment. The extras are nearly non-existent, just a ten minute feature on how the film was made, which was interesting, but ultimately unsatisfactory. Given how the film was made, it needed a bigger input from the director, and a director's commentary with Mike Leigh would have added greatly to the film. The DVD also contains the film's original trailer.
I also wonder whether the DVD could have given more background to the whole abortion issue, so when it was legalised, why exactly it was legalised, and the like. I've seen many films of this nature give such notes as a DVD extra, and it would have been a useful additional feature.
The film was released in 2004 and performed strongly at the box office, despite the low production costs. The DVD is currently available from Amazon for 5.99 pounds, which is good value.
However, overall, I found this a beautifully atmospheric film, produced on a very tight budget, but a definite winner. If the film sounds of interest, I'm sure you will enjoy what the director and the actors have done.
Vera Drake is an Academy Award-nominated British film directed by Mike Leigh. It tells the story of a working class woman in London in 1950, whose values conflict with the social mores of the period. Starring the spectacular Imelda Staunton at its lead the film appears at first to be straight forward, but delving a little deeper you can see the social consequences of living in the 50's, before the swing of the 60's!
Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is devoted to her family, looking after her husband and two children, her elderly mother, and a sick neighbor. Vera's daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) works in a factory, and her son Sid (Daniel Mays) tailors men's suits. Her husband Stanley (Phil Davis) is a car mechanic. Although Vera and her family do not live lavishly, their strong family bonds hold them together showing one of the clear strong points of the 1950's.
Vera works as a house cleaner helping to pay the family's way. However, unknown to her family, she also serves as a backroom abortionist. She receives no money for this, believing her help to be an act of generosity, though her 'work' partner Lily (Ruth Sheen), a hard-bitten wheeler-dealer who also carries on a black-market trade, does charge for arranging the abortions without Vera's knowledge. We are also introduced to a character named Susan (Sally Hawkins), who is the daughter of one of Vera's employers and whose story is one of the film's subplots. Susan is raped by a man she was dating, becomes pregnant, and asks a friend to put her in contact with a doctor who performs abortions. The practice was illegal in 1950s England, but affluent young women could undergo legal, "therapeutic" abortions by finding doctors willing to testify that the procedure was necessary to their mental health. In Susan's case, the psychiatrist helpfully prompts her with the correct answers so that he can recommend her abortion on the grounds that mental illness may run in her family, and that she might be desperate enough to harm herself.
The film plays a more educational role than it does an entertaining role in my opinion. The film is neither funny or particularly enthralling. The plot is slow moving and accents can begin to grate on you. However every little detail is 1950's. The costume, furnishing, cars, attitudes are excellently portrayed and the film captures the period it is trying to do a lot more successfully than other 'period' films.
Obviously, one of the major plus points of the film has to be Staunton's acting, for which she was recognized with having an Oscar nomination for best actress. She catches the plight of Drake superbly and the audience give great sympathy to the character as she battles in a fight with her moral conscious against legal. A major theme in the film.
These films help to make the film to be more relevant today. With many such cases in the world where women cannot have abortion and instead have to deal with the social consequences of having a child out of wedlock. Furthermore the film can be related to such acts that the courts have seen like siamese babies where one has to die for the other to live. One sense it is wrong to leave one twin to die but the other side it is far better to have one survive than neither.
Family bonds are also another key area in the film with Vera Drake working tirelessly for her family and neighbors. Earning money for food, looking after her sick mother and neighbor, having the 'middle classes' round for Christmas and fulfilling her duties of a wife.
The film has no special effects and is based purely on the excellent script and acting. As far as I can remember there was no accompanying music with the film.
I would recommend the film to people who are generally interested in the 1950 period or to those who lived through it. The film does have a slow pace to it but this just helps to portray the emotions and thoughts of the characters involved.
If you like your fast paced, comedy, action packed films stay well clear! But for first class acting this is a great film, but not one you would want to watch again.
The film received Academy Award Nominations for Best Actress, Best Director, Best original Screen play. (All duly deserved)
The film leaves you with a taste in your mouth and if you are absorbed by it, Vera Drake will make you think and you will have you own opinions on the matter by the end of the film.
Therefore I would recommend renting the film from Block Buster rather than buying, or take advantage of amazons rent a film offer. www.amazon.co.uk
TITLE: Vera Drake
CAST: Imelda Staunton, Richard Graham, Eddie Marsan, Anna Keaveney, Alex Kelly,
Daniel Mays, Phil Davis
DIRECTOR: Mike Leigh
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
RELEASED: 7 January 2005
Vera Drake is the hardworking mother or a working class family in 1950s London- a London still recovering from the ravages of war. Stockings and certain foodstuffs are still in short supply, many women are working to provide for their families after the loss of fathers and husbands, and many people still live in buildings that can only be described as slums.
Veras quite lucky though. Shes not rich, but she has a comfortable home, albeit only a few rooms, a loving and devoted husband, and two children who are both working. Her husband works for his brother in a garage, fixing up cars, her son works in a gentlemans outfitters, and her daughter Ethel works in a factory testing lightbulbs.
Vera herself works as a cleaner for a wealthy family, but as well as that she finds time to be a devoted wife and mother, making sure her family is happy and well looked after. She also cares for her elderly mother, popping in to change the sheets and cook meals, and often pops in on her sick neighbors to make a comforting cup of tea.
However, Vera has another job she helps out pregnant women and girls by helping them to induce a miscarriage, a practice which was illegal in the 1950s (although rich people had access to therapeutic abortions if a psychiatrist would attest that the mental health of the mother was at stake). She doesnt accept any payment for this in her mind, she is simply helping out those unfortunate enough to get them into trouble, and she does this with a cheery smile and comforting words.
However, one night a girl who has used Veras services becomes ill and almost dies, and the police become involved. Vera now risks losing everything her family, her friends, and the respect of her peers.
LIFE IN THE 1950S
I think its important in this review to give a little background of life in the period for the working class.
Foods and certain luxury items were still scarce after the war, and many men were unemployed, as a result of women taking over the jobs while they fought for their country. Many people were poor, and many were uneducated. It was still common at the time for people not to be able to read and write well, as many young teenagers had left school during the war in order to work to support their family.
Marriage was still very much respected Nowadays attitudes are very different, but in those times, courtships were long and chaste, with marriage regarded as the only situation in which it was acceptable to have sex and have children. Women who were married were expected to take on the roles of wife and mother with a smile, and most families had 4 or 5 children, (with many lost along the way due to sickness, or poverty). Even after having several children, wives were still expected to roll over and play, and contraception was not widely available, so many families had more mouths than they could afford to feed.
Sex education in schools was not as widely available as it is today. Many young girls would not have had the first idea how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and sex wasnt something that was talked about in the home. Many girls got pregnant as a result of ignorance.
The attitude towards women who had sex and had children without getting married was very different it was frowned upon. Women who found themselves pregnant were encouraged to marry the childs father, and many women were disowned by their families either for refusing to marry someone unsuitable, or simply because it was not possible to marry. Many more were shunted into unmarried mothers homes, where they were virtually imprisoned until giving birth, and then had their babies taken away from them at only a few hours old, never to be seen again.
ABORTION LAW IN THE 1950S
The law regarding the practice of aiding a woman to miscarry at the time was under the Offences Against The Person Act of 1861
59. Whosoever shall unlawfully supply or procure any poison or other noxious thing, or any instrument or thing whatsoever, knowing that the same is intended to be unlawfully used or employed with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable ... to be kept in penal servitude ....
The law was changed in 1929 when the Infant Life (Preservation) Act was passed, when it was then permitted for a woman to have a medical abortion if necessary to save her life, so long as the unborn baby was less than 28weeks.
In 1938, The Bourne Ruling in 1938, made when the case of Rex v. Bourne set a precedent by aborting the pregnancy of a victim of rape, then made it possible for a woman to obtain an abortion for psychological reasons.
However, a legal abortion under these laws was still only available to those who had the money to visit or be attended by a doctor, something most working class women would not have access to. Susan in the film has £100 towards the cost of her abortion, an amount that is equivalent, (according to the converter at http://tinyurl.com/3du43l ) to at least £2,294 today.
In this situation, its easy to see why a young girl who found herself pregnant, or a mother with too many mouths to feed already, would take desperate and illegal measures to get rid of an unwanted child often endangering their own life in the process.
Vera Drake was directed by Mike Leigh. Leigh takes a rather unique approach to filmmaking. He doesnt work to a script, and the lines are entirely improvised by the actors and actresses, who are introduced to each other gradually and work together to find their character, their mannerisms, and their personalities. This works well, as it gives a much greater depth of realism to the film the moments where we see the family together work wonderfully, as they seem like a real family.
SET, PROPS, AND COSTUME DESIGN
The sets used in the film were very convincing, and really made me feel as if the film was made in the 1950s. There were buildings still bearing bomb damage, big 1950s police vehicles, plain and functional civic buildings and comfortable yet shabby homes. The homes looked genuinely lived in tables with scratches on the woodwork, windows dusty with smoke from nearby factories, faded floral linen.
The costumes were also very convincing from the functional working clothes worn by Vera, to the ragged night dress worn by one of the poorer girls Vera ministered to. There were also more elaborate costumes, worn by Veras employers, and by the people taking high tea in a classy restaurant.
The acting in this film was magnificent, especially considering that there was no screenplay and no script. Imelda Staunton was very convincing as Vera warm, loving, with a kind word and a smile for everyone. Even in the most trying situations, while crying and obviously distressed, Vera still retains her habit of calling everyone Dear and of speaking only in the kindest terms of everyone. Shes a real mother figure.
Richard Graham plays Veras loving husband George a friendly affable man, and seemingly a quieter person altogether than his wife. The scenes between these two are truly touching, and they work well together as a pair, especially with the actors playing their children.
Sally Hawkins plays the role of Susan, the daughter of Veras employers, the Wells family, who finds herself pregnant after a rape. She plays the role brilliantly, particularly when showing her concern for herself and her family if they should find out. Her role in the plot is to illustrate the class divide she has the money and the opportunity to resolve the situation in a much safer way than Veras clients .
Although the film is about a very controversial subject, Mike Leigh steers very clear of shoving an opinion , one way or the other, down our throats. Letting the story unfold slowly, he allows us to make up our own minds as to whether abortion is right or wrong, and as to whether Vera is doing a good deed, or was in fact a criminal. He deals with the issue sensitively, emphasizing not just the abortions that make up the central plot, but also allowing us a glimpse into 1950s family life, and into the class divide that was still very much in evidence at the time.
While the film is in some places quite sad, and maybe even a little upsetting, its not generally a depressing film. There are a good few happy moments in it too, and it comes out well balanced and deeply interesting . Its certainly a great film to watch, and I would definitely watch it again .
This is available on DVD for just under £6 at Amazon.co.uk. I however watched it on VHS, so I cant comment on the quality of the DVD extras, although they do include the trailer and a cast and crew documentary.
Vera Drake is Mike Leighs BAFTA award winning drama about backstreet abortions in 1950s London.
Vera (played by Imelda Staunton) is a typical working class mum living in London with her husband (played by Phil shake me up Davis), her enthusiastic son and her daughter, who hardly speaks. Although they dont have much money, Vera likes to invite their lonely neighbour, Reg (Eddie Marsan), around for tea.
By day Vera works as a cleaner for fairly wealthy families, but as well as this, she finds time to help out young girls by carrying out backstreet abortions. Armed with just a bar of soap, a bowl of water, a tube and pump, and a cheese grater (!), she helps these girls remove their unwanted babies, and does this all out of the goodness of her heart she refuses to take any money for it.
However, after one of her procedures results in a woman nearly dying, the police find out about her practice and arrest her, shattering the blissful ignorance of her family and bringing all their lives crashing down.
Vera Drake is an intelligent and, most importantly, fairly evenly-handled drama. It would be easy to turn Vera into a saint and portray her totally innocently and heroically, but Mike Leigh somehow manages to make her sympathetic without letting the audience forget the seriousness and danger of what shes doing. On the one hand, shes doing it out of kindness rather than selfishness, and only because these women need help and have nobody else to turn to; so you do feel very sorry for her. However, you realise the risk of what shes doing in the second half of the film when the police look at her extremely basic equipment, and when it is revealed that she has been carrying out abortions for about 20 years, without knowing what happened to any of the patients afterwards. This in particular puts everything in a new light.
Its powerful stuff, sometimes bordering on overly so. Whilst Imelda Stauntons performance is brilliant and justifiably won her a BAFTA, there are points when the film becomes slow and repetitive; not even her emotional acting can hide the fact that the last hour could have been done in about 45 minutes.
Saying that, the heartstring-pulling is handled sensibly, with a notable and welcome lack of overly emotional background music, and a good balance between bleak/depressing and well get through it-family values. The ending in particular is both satisfying and realistic. Whilst much of the last half is focused on Stauntons increasingly haggard and distraught face, the rest of the cast do their bit as well. Phil Davis is excellent as usual, and the rest of her family are believable, realistic characters.
All this harrowing drama seems a million miles away at the start of the film it begins as a pleasant family drama, complete with buckets of realistically recreated nostalgic settings and props. I dont remember the fifties, obviously, but Vera Drake transported me into the era and it seemed very realistic youll have to ask somebody older to confirm whether it really is or not!
In fact, the characters and dialogue at the start was perhaps too old-fashioned; Veras constant cup of tea, dear? was funny to start with but soon got on my nerves, whilst her son was just a little bit too chirpy and annoying (although his character development in the second half is unexpected and thought-provoking). I guess it all added to the realistic feel of the film though.
Vera Drake is a bit too slow in places (its a two-hour film, but I think a good fifteen minutes could have been taken out) and it takes a while to get going, but the payoff is worth it. Its worth watching for Stauntons fantastic performance although you might find it hard to take seriously if youve seen the hilarious Dead Ringers spoof of it which is for the most part subtle and powerful. The film is especially powerful if, like me, you enjoy an emotional drama but without being manipulated by cheesy endings.
You can buy Vera Drake for £4.95 from www.dvd.co.uk. Im reviewing the film only.
Directed by: Mike Leigh
Imelda Staunton Vera Drake
Phil Davis Stan
Richard Graham George
Sally Hawkins Susan
Eddie Marsan Reg
Classification: 12 (some thematic elements)
Running time: 125 minutes
My rating: 4 stars
The film Vera Drake is set in a post war 1950s London. The Drake family themselves are just a normal working class family, living in what amounts to a few rooms in a housing block, and indeed with very few luxuries of living a mere 50 years later. Mr Drake works with his brother in a garage, their son works in a tailors and their daughter Ethel tests light bulbs in a factory. Vera herself wears many hats - as well as being a housewife and mother, she also works as a cleaner for wealthier households, while at the same time taking care of neighbours in the block who are either housebound or bed-bound, as well as indeed her own mother.
And she fulfils another important role in the community.
Abortion WAS available to affluent women in 1950, providing that a doctor cited the mental health of the mother was at risk. However the finances were beyond the reach of most women, in an era when having children out of wedlock was strictly taboo. It wasn't just young unmarried women who sought the help of a backstreet abortionist though; many older, married women who simply could not cope with any more kids often looked for help.
Vera Drake was written and directed by Mike Leigh, a Mancunian. Leigh has a particular way of developing his films. The cast actors and actresses are introduced to each other gradually, just like they would have been in the lives of the characters they portray. Much of the story is developed through improvisation. To give an example of this, apart from Imelda Staunton, who was excellent and convincing as Vera Drake, no other actor in the film had any idea the film was about abortion until fairly late on. This is clever directing, as the element of surprise and shock is caught on the individual actors and actresses faces.
I enjoy British made films with their stories set in the UK primarily because it is easier to get absorbed in the location, and this film was no exception. Most of the filming takes place either in the block of flats where the Drakes lived or indeed in the cramped living quarters of the people in Vera's life - both family and the people she cares for, and the girls she "helps".
Life in a 1950s Britain was simply depicted as being much more straightforward and perhaps family oriented, and the differences between the sexes more apparent, given that while both adult children worked, it was the girl, Ethel, who helped her mother around the house after the evening meal. While the son, Sid, played by Daniel Mays was outgoing and gregarious, Ethel, played by Alex Kelly, was at times unbelievably subservient. They were certainly a close family though, although none of them were aware of the secret life of their Mother until one girl who was "helped" by Vera was rushed to hospital after being taken seriously ill and admitted to the abortion.
The moral issue over whether Abortion is right or wrong was probably debated as much back in 1950 as it is today, perhaps more so then, as most people accept the right of a woman to choose today. Staunton's portrayal of Vera Drake was of a simple woman, a woman who helped girls out by reintroducing their bleeds, convinced she was doing nothing wrong but merely helping them, the way she would help an elderly neighbour with their care needs.
While the subject of the film is obvious, and the law is very clear as to the rights and wrongs of what Vera did, the director allows the story to unfold in a simple way, and the viewer can decide whether she was doing good or evil. Leigh himself describes it as political in that it deals with the way people live their lives but the complexities of the situation unravel themselves gradually and Leigh definitely does not force one view or the other at the viewer. What he has done is give those interested a much greater insight into just how backstreet abortion was a large yet covert reality. Generally speaking the film is easy to watch, with one or two scenes that made me feel slightly uncomfortable, however the film is rated as a 12
I have watched the film twice, when it was first released on DVD a year or two ago, and more recently. I actually appreciated it more the second time - if there were one criticism of the film (apart from the endless times Vera put the kettle on!) it is that it seems to end quite sharply, and I found myself wanting more from it the first time I watched it.
The film was nominated for three Oscars, and has won a stack of other film awards, including best costume design. I have to say the latter is no surprise and indeed the transformation of Staunton into Vera Drake is excellent.
The DVD is available from £6.97 via Amazon or from £1 on Ebay, used, making it possible to buy this DVD for less than the cost of renting it. There are however, very few extras, on the DVD - only one short feature discussing the making of the film with the Cast and Crew, which was nevertheless very interesting, particularly for the improvisation techniques that were deployed.
The brilliant writer-director Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy, Secrets and Lies, Naked) has crafted an utterly compelling movie about one of the most controversial of topics. An irrepressibly hopeful housecleaner in 1950s London named Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton, Antonia and Jane, Shakespeare in Love) mothers everyone around her, from her own family to helpless shut-ins and lonely men living in tiny, isolated apartments. None of these people know that Vera also helps young women get rid of unwanted pregnancies, until the police appear and tear her world apart. Vera Drake isn't just an inspired character portrait; through simple and straightforward scenes, the movie weaves a quiet but mesmerizing portrait of how people--both wealthy and poor--cope with adversity. Though wrenching, Vera Drake has too much life to be depressing. Leigh is deservedly famous for his work with actors; every character brims with truth and Staunton's performance deserves every award it could possibly win. --Bret Fetzer