03 June, 2009

Vera Drake (2004)

Mother. Wife. Criminal.

He's never had a problem with handling difficult subjects, has our Mike Leigh - the director of Naked (1993) and Secrets & Lies (1996) turned his hand here to one of western societies' most controversial issues, namely that of abortion and how mothers, morality and the law are expected to navigate the minefield.

And a minefield it most certainly was during the era of Vera Drake (2004) - early 1950s England was no place to be if you couldn't cope with the burden of motherhood and couldn't afford to be referred by a psychiatrist for an abortion.

We join the title character (a simply wonderful, heartbreaking Imelda Staunton, who won the 2004 European Film Award for Best Actress) in the middle of her daily 'duties' - she's a devoted, caring mother-of-two, happily married to car mechanic George (Philip Davis), whose days are spent keeping her home and family happy, meals on the table, her invalid mother and other less-fortunate members of her community company, and the homes of the local gentry spick and span.

In addition, there's the small matter of the pregnancy terminations for which Vera takes responsibility - a rudimentary procedure involving warm water, carbolic soap, disinfectant and a Higgson's syringe. Drake takes no payment for her services - she is motivated only by her desire to help girls in desperate situations - but that's more than can be said for her friend Lily (Ruth Sheen), who organises Vera's schedule and takes money on the sly from the pregnant girls. The near-death of one of Drake's 'customers' brings the law knocking at the door...and grief intrudes upon the tight-knit family's life.

There is perhaps no better director alive than Leigh when it comes to capturing the unmistakeable ring of truth with dialogue; written by the director, but also largely improvised on by the very talented cast, the script takes us into the heart of a society in which family is very important, but where social mores still hold sway, sometimes at tremendous cost. Drake's family, while not grindingly poor, nevertheless live in a community in which being poor is commonplace - a sharp contrast to the full doctor-and-hospital care that is (somewhat snootily) offered to society girl Susan (Sally Hawkins), who is left pregnant after being raped by her 'gentleman' friend David (Sam Troughton). Of course, she can pay - so what of those who can't?

Typically, Leigh does not take a stance on the issue, trusting instead to the intelligence and inclinations of his audience. For this reviewer, it is simply a tragedy that a so-called civilized society ever allowed such a situation to exist, but I am grateful to the director for opening my eyes.

Awards: Click here for details.

125 mins.