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A fresh perspective on backstreet abortions
Vera Drake (DVD)
Member Name: l-m-n-o-p
Vera Drake (DVD)
Date: 08/06/07, updated on 08/06/07 (173 review reads)
Advantages: Powerful drama with an excellent performance from Imelda Staunton
Disadvantages: Quite long and drawn-out
Vera Drake is Mike Leigh’s 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 don’t 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 she’s doing. On the one hand, she’s 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 she’s 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.
It’s powerful stuff, sometimes bordering on overly so. Whilst Imelda Staunton’s 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 “we’ll get through it”-family values. The ending in particular is both satisfying and realistic. Whilst much of the last half is focused on Staunton’s 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 don’t remember the fifties, obviously, but Vera Drake transported me into the era and it seemed very realistic… you’ll 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; Vera’s 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 (it’s 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. It’s worth watching for Staunton’s fantastic performance – although you might find it hard to take seriously if you’ve 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. I’m 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
Summary: A very powerful, realistic and moving drama