Cinema Signal:

Abortion Wars:
A Half Century of Struggle, 1950-2000

. "Vera Drake"

There's little in the Mike Leigh portfolio of film that prepared me for such a straightforward, pure act of character. Being a director who I often find too intent on stylistic flourish, my hat's off to him and my estimation risen. Give me a director who demonstrates the power of a well told story!

Back in the days of coat-hanger solutions to unwanted pregnancy, the laws of 1950's England on the subject were clear. This is also the time when gentle Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) tended to the poor and the sick within her neighborhood boundaries with food, attention and whatever relief and comfort she was able to provide. This is a good soul.

She greatly enjoys being able to help people, refreshing her own spirit with each bit of help she renders. But, this also includs a practice that is against the afforementioned law, and her awareness of its clandestine nature causes her to hide her little kit of abortion tools away from her family.

Her husband Stan (Phil Davis) has a good job as a mechanic, which provides for the modest family nicely. He takes great pride in his wife's helpful nature, good cooking, lively companionship and people's high regard for her. In fact, Vera had a way of making everyone comfortable. More than that.

When she runs into neighbor Reg (Eddie Marsan) a wall-flower of a neighbor, shy and single, she invites him to join the family for dinner. She has an unstated plan. He's a perfect match for her wallflower daughter.

Vera's darker side involves childhood chum Lily (Ruth Sheen) now grown into a schemer --the true villain of the piece-- taking advantage of Vera's innocent inclination to help people with problems. Lily's the one who sets up the clients for Vera's "procedures." But, they're clients to Lily only. Not only does she not pay Vera for her services, but in every meeting with her "friend" she attempts to sell her goods out of her ample purse.

Vera is so simple about the mercenary side of human nature that she never suspects that Lily's motives are anything different than her own.

Vera goes on with her two lives until one of her young girls nearly dies and the ensuing investigation leads to her exposure, arrest, and court case. By now, with the benefit of a character we love and esteem as much as her family does, the systematic process she goes through commands our attention and holds it in a fierce grip. The sensitivity of the police toward their gentle charge keeps out focus on the personal tragedy that unfolds.

It brings to mind only one other film of this season that has a similar power of completely shutting the world out while the fate of the heroine is determined: "Maria Full of Grace." Neither film should be missed by anyone who stakes a claim on truthful character portrayal, fine performance and moving drama. The best kind of showmanship.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Imelda Staunton
as Vera Drake, with family and friends

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