The two lives of Vera Drake
No other filmmaker captures the essence of the British working class with quite the skill and attention to detail as Mike Leigh. Vera Drake is a change of pace for Leigh. The film is set in 1950s England and centres around a charwoman who scrubs and cleans the houses of the wealthy. Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is described by various people as an ‘angel’ and ‘worth her weight in gold.’ The first few scenes show Vera going about her typical day. Relentlessly cheerful, she cleans, she cooks, she runs errands, and she even finds time and energy to invite a hapless young man over for dinner. One has the impression that Vera Drake is a Mother Theresa type–devoted, selfless and uncomplaining.
There is however, another, secret side to Vera Drake. She performs abortions or as she calls it, “helps girls out.” The only person who knows about Vera’s secret activities is her unpleasant friend, Lily (Ruth Sheen). The film juxtaposes the scenes of a wealthy girl obtaining an abortion with working class women opting to obtain an illegal alternative performed by Vera. The film doesn’t take any cheap shots at the wealthy girl’s situation–she is just as humiliated by the experience as the poor women. Vera genuinely believes she is performing a ‘service’ for women who don’t have the means to get legal abortions. Inevitably, one abortion Vera performs goes wrong, and the police arrive at Vera’s home and take her off for questioning.
With the film Vera Drake director Mike Leigh illustrates his immense talent in recreating a past age. His attention to detail is staggering. However, the character of Vera Drake is problematic–she’s a Stepford wife. She’s never tired, never grumbles, never falters. Is this woman a machine or an unrealistic character? It’s acceptable to think of a woman such as Vera leading this dual life, accepting the illegality of her actions with an ‘end justifies the means’ argument, but nonetheless Vera would be a more complex character than portrayed here. Vera spends the first half of the film as a sweet, almost lobotomized cleaner/abortionist, and then she spends the next half of the film crying her eyes out. For me, at least, the film was spoilt (incredible performance taken into consideration) by the simplistic portrayal of Vera.