Written and directed by Mike Leigh, Vera Drake is a sincere, nongrandstanding film about a decent person bedeviled by the law in 1950 postwar London. Vera Drake is a busy woman. She cleans houses for a living, but it’s what she does for which she takes no remuneration that gets her into trouble. Vera tends to and comforts the sickly poor in North London. She also helps “girls in trouble.” One of these clients nearly dies but recovers following the abortion. Vera’s family finds out about her illegal activity only after she is arrested by the police, whereupon her grown son, Sidney, is stung by shame. “She let us down,” he announces, but his father, Vera’s loyal husband, Stanley, will hear none of that. Vera Drake has simply been doing what she has always done: helping others.
There is not a lot of plot in this film. We observe Vera’s activities, after which come the arrest, which interrupts a family dinner, the trial, the verdict and, finally, her imprisonment. The film has made a substantial impact, with many even declaring it Leigh’s best film. It took the top prize at Venice, where Imelda Staunton also won as best actress. It swept the British Academy Awards and won the top prize from numerous quarters. Staunton’s titular performance was rewarded at the European Film Awards and, indeed, garnered most of the world’s best actress accolades, including from both the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle in the United States.
I must have seen a different film. For me, Vera Drake had negligible impact, and Staunton’s repetitive performance—she scrunches her face once Vera is found out, and how she cries—made little impression. I was certainly not blown away by this film, as I was by Claude Chabrol’s brilliant work about a wartime abortionist, A Story of Women (1988), in which Isabelle Huppert gives a far more complex and more powerful performance than Staunton does in Leigh’s film. But, of course, Huppert is given a complex character to play, whereas Staunton’s Vera hovers near the sterile vicinity of sainthood.
In a way, though, the film is maddeningly effective, being bereft, given the period in which it is set, of all due consideration of a woman’s reproductive rights. An aura of Nazi Germany hangs over the courtroom in which Vera Drake is tried, especially when the judge condemns her from the bench before passing an outrageously stiff sentence: more than two years’ imprisonment. But what term of confinement wouldn’t be outrageous here? Vera Drake had never previously run afoul of the law.
But this ironical omnipresence of an absent argument cannot sustain so muted a melodrama as Leigh has tiresomely wrought.
I yield to no one in my admiration of Leigh’s Life Is Sweet (1990). We need more filmmakers investigating working-class lives and milieus. But Leigh’s strength has generally lain in his naturalism and domestic humor, and both of these are lacking here. The film is not only unremittingly solemn; it is also inflated and overblown. The grand scale of Leigh’s marvelous Topsy-Turvy (1999), about Gilbert & Sullivan, simply has no place in Vera Drake. And, despite the fretful goings-on, reality too seldom finds its way into Leigh’s studied picture about another time, some of whose myopic prejudice has lingered far too long.