Vera Drake is a 2004 British drama film written and directed by Mike Leigh and starring Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis, Daniel Mays and Eddie Marsan. It tells the story of a working-class woman in London in 1950 who performs illegal abortions. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and it was nominated for three Academy Awards and won three BAFTAs.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Mike Leigh|
|Produced by||Simon Channing Williams|
|Written by||Mike Leigh|
|Music by||Andrew Dickson|
|Edited by||Jim Clark|
|Distributed by||Momentum Pictures (UK)|
Fine Line Features (US)
|6 September 2004 (Venice)|
|Box office||$13.3 million|
Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is devoted to her family, looking after her husband and children, her elderly mother, and a sick neighbour. Her shy daughter, Ethel (Alex Kelly), works in a lightbulb 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 are poor, their strong family bonds hold them together. During her working day as a house cleaner, Vera performs constant small acts of kindness for the many people she encounters.
She is a kindly person who is eager to help others. Unknown to her family, she also works secretly, providing young women abortions. She receives no money for providing this service because she believes that her help is an act of charity to women in trouble. However, her partner Lily (Ruth Sheen), who also carries on a black-market trade in scarce postwar foodstuffs, charges two guineas (two pounds and two shillings: equivalent to £67 in 2018) for arranging the abortions, without Vera's knowledge.
The film also contains a subplot about an upper-class young woman, Susan (Sally Hawkins), the daughter of one of Vera's employers. Susan is raped by a suitor, becomes pregnant, and asks a friend to put her in contact with a doctor, through whom she can obtain an abortion. The doctor refers her to a psychiatrist, who prompts her to answer questions in a certain way, so that he can legally recommend an abortion on therapeutic psychiatric grounds: that she has a family history of mental illness and that she may commit suicide if not allowed to terminate the pregnancy. The abortion costs her a hundred guineas.
After one of her patients nearly dies, Vera is arrested by the police and taken into custody for questioning. She is held overnight and appears before a magistrate the next morning. Sid is shocked by his mother's secret activities and tells his father that he does not think that he can forgive her. However, in a later conversation with Vera, he expresses fear for what could happen to her in prison, before finally telling Vera that he loves her.
Vera is bailed to appear at the Old Bailey. None of Vera's employers will give her a character reference. Her solicitor thinks she will receive the minimum sentence of 18 months in jail; the judge sentences her to two and a half years imprisonment "as a deterrent to others." This affects all the people who previously depended on Vera's kindness.
While in prison, Vera meets others who have been convicted of performing illegal abortions. They discuss their sentences, until Vera tearfully leaves, to go to her cell.
- Imelda Staunton as Vera Drake
- Phil Davis as Stanley Drake
- Daniel Mays as Sid Drake
- Alex Kelly as Ethel Drake
- Sandra Voe as Gran
- Eddie Marsan as Reg
- Adrian Scarborough as Frank Drake
- Heather Craney as Joyce Drake
- Sally Hawkins as Susan Wells
- Ruth Sheen as Lily Clark
- Lesley Sharp as Jessie Barnes
- Liz White as Pamela Barnes
- Peter Wight as Det. Inspector Webster
- Martin Savage as Det. Sergeant Vickers
- Jim Broadbent as Judge
- Lesley Manville as Mrs. Wells
In Vera Drake, Leigh incorporated elements of his own childhood. He grew up in north Salford, Lancashire, and experienced a very ordinary but socio-economically mixed life as the son of a doctor and a midwife. In the book The Cinema of Mike Leigh: A Sense of the Real, Leigh said, "I lived in this particular kind of working-class district with some relations living in slightly leafier districts up the road. So there was always a tension, or at least a duality: those two worlds were forever colliding. So you constantly get the one world and its relationship with the other going on in my films."
Mike Leigh is known to use unusual methods to achieve realism in his films. "Leigh's actors literally have to find their characters through improvisation and research the ways people in specific communities speak and behave. Leigh and his cast immerse themselves in the local life before creating the story" (1994: 7: Watson 29). Critic Roger Ebert explains:
His method is to gather a cast for weeks or months of improvisation in which they create and explore their characters. I don’t think the technique has ever worked better than here; the family life in those cramped little rooms is so palpably real that as the others wait around the dining table while Vera speaks to policeman behind the kitchen door, I felt as if I were waiting there with them. It's not that we 'identify' so much as that the film quietly and firmly includes us.
Leigh often uses improvisation to capture his actors' unscripted emotions. When filming Vera Drake, only Imelda Staunton knew ahead of time that the subject of the film was abortion. None of the cast members playing the family members, including Staunton, knew that Vera was to be arrested until the moment the actors playing the police knocked on the door of the house they were using for rehearsals. Their genuine reactions of shock and confusion provided the raw material for their dialogue and actions.
In addition to these methods utilised by Mike Leigh, the director is also admired for his preference of English actors to Hollywood stars. This has led to criticism of Leigh as being a patroniser of the working class. However, using Dickens in his defence, he rebuts these accusations outright proclaiming that the last thing he seeks in his actors is a stereotype. This stereotype was fiercely criticised in the film, Vera Drake:
These abiding quibbles aside, Vera Drake is a compelling and complex film. Though much has been made of the controversial subject matter – back street abortion – its main theme is the buried family secret, the ticking time bomb that can lurk underneath even the most stable marriage. Much of the film's cumulative power lies in its delineation of a rock solid family suddenly rocked to the core by a revelation that is literally beyond their comprehension: the fact that their beloved, and loving, mother is an abortionist. Why, I ask Leigh, does she keep her secret for so long?
The film was a critical success. The website Metacritic, which compiles and averages reviews from leading film critics, gave it a score of 83 out of 100. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 92% based on 157 reviews, with a rating average of 7.9/10. The site's consensus is that, "with a piercingly powerful performance by Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake brings teeming humanity to the controversial subject of abortion."
The film has attracted some criticism from those who worked in midwifery during the 1950s. The chief concern is the method of abortion used by Vera Drake in the film. This involves a Higginson bulb syringe used to introduce a warm, dilute solution of carbolic soap and an unspecified liquid disinfectant into the woman's uterus. This method is claimed by Jennifer Worth, a nurse and midwife in the 1950s and 1960s, to be invariably fatal. She called the film itself "dangerous", as it could be shown in countries where abortion is illegal and the method depicted copied by desperate women.
Awards and nominations
- 2004 European Film Awards – won Best Actress and nominated for Best Film
- 2004 Venice Film Festival – won Golden Lion for Best Film & Volpi Cup for Best Actress
- 2005 Golden Globes – nominated for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama
- 2004 Academy Awards – nominated for Best Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay
- 2004 Camerimage – won Golden Frog for best cinematography (Dick Pope)
- 2005 BAFTAs – won Best Director, Best Actress in a Leading Role and Costume Design (for Jacqueline Durran). Nominated for Best Film, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay - Original, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Make Up/Hair and Best British Film.
- It won the BIFA Award for Best British Independent Film in 2004 and that year's London Film Critics' Circle Award for British Film of the Year.
- "Search for releases | British Board of Film Classification". bbfc.co.uk. Retrieved 28 September 2017.
- "Vera Drake (2004)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 28 September 2017.
- Watson, Garry. ''The Cinema of Mike Leigh: A Sense of the Real'', Wallflower Press, 2004, 207pp, ISBN 1-904764-10-X. Books.google.dk. Retrieved 1 January 2010.
- Ebert, Roger. ''Vera Drake'', Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2007, Andrews McMeel, 2006, 990pp, p745. Books.google.dk. Retrieved 1 January 2010.
- "I'm allowed to do what I want - that amazes me'". The Observer. 5 December 2004. Retrieved 10 February 2014.
- "Box Office Mojo". (statistics on Vera Drake)
- "Vera Drake Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved 28 September 2017.
- "Vera Drake". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 4 November 2010.
- Jennifer Worth (nurse and midwife 1953–73) (6 January 2005). "A deadly trade". Guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
- Fuller, Graham (2008). Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh. Faber. p. 438. ISBN 978-0-571-20469-4.