So few movies tackle the abortion issue head-on that I tend to have a soft spot for the ones that even come close. Mike Leigh's Vera Drake certainly tackles the abortion issue, but I'm not sure it tackles it head-on, ultimately. It's set in '50s England, a good decade before abortion became legal in that country. And it features, as a backstreet abortionist, a woman who's as close as we're ever going to get to a living saint. That she turns out to be something of a cardboard saint should not be held against the middle-aged Vera (Imelda Staunton), who certainly means well, but it can perhaps be held against the movie, which also means well. Would abortions performed in '50s England by women who didn't qualify for sainthood have been any less moral? Of course not. And hovering over Vera Drake, which has many fine qualities to recommend it, is a sense that writer-director Leigh has stacked the deck.
When we first meet her, walking down the street in her plain frock, her sensible shoes and a little hat that wraps around her head like a halo, Vera is making her appointed rounds, tending to the sick. It isn't her job, mind you. She's a housekeeper by trade. It's just something she does out of the goodness of her heart. Another thing she does out of the goodness of her heart is "help girls out." And she approaches this task with the same sweet efficiency she brings to, say, dusting the furniture. Out comes her bag of tools " a syringe, a nail brush, a cheese grater, a bar of carbolic acid, a bottle of disinfectant. And the whole thing's over almost before it's begun, Vera pausing at the door to say "Look out for yourself, dear." Then it's back home to tend to her own family - her loving husband (Phil Davis), her extroverted son (Daniel Mays) and her introverted daughter (Alex Kelly). They don't know about the cheese grater, by the way.
But they're about to find out. Vera's arrest, after one of the girls she's helped out nearly dies, shatters her world, and it doesn't do the movie much good either. Suddenly, questions that had been lingering in the backs of our minds are brought to the front - questions like how Vera feels about the service she provides and why she's been doing it for some 20 years. Except for a rather provocative hint, the movie doesn't really try to answer these questions, not even when Vera's put on trial, and this makes her even more of an enigma. Why, if she believes so strongly in a woman's right to choose, does she experience such a complete and utter breakdown when she's caught? And why can't she bring herself to say the word "abortion"? Is she Catholic? And even if she isn't, does religion play a role in her life? Enigmas can be evocative, mysterious, but they can also be evasive. Vera Drake doesn't quite give us enough to go on.
What it does give us is a nice lived-in feeling - the suffocating coziness of drab postwar interiors " and some wonderfully naturalistic acting. Leigh is known for the performances he gets by putting his cast through months of rehearsals, during which time they develop their characters while he develops the script. And there isn't a role in Vera Drake that doesn't seem thoroughly thought out. But it's Vera herself who must carry the movie on her never-weary shoulders, and Staunton does her best with a woman who, when you get right down to it, is pretty simple-minded - Edith Bunker without Archie around to call her a dingbat. A clue to the character, incidentally, is that she smiles even when she's alone. What kind of person does that? A saint, maybe. Or a kook. Perhaps without intending to, Leigh has turned Vera into a little bit of both. We admire her no end without quite understanding her.