Working Class Heroine
Vera Drake is well-acted but ruined by simplistic plot.
Thursday, October 28, 2004
Set in a down-at-heel borough of North London, Vera
Drake beautifully captures the volatile post-war mood of
scarcity, hope and ambition through the Drake family, whose
drab home is warmed by domestic happiness. Vera’s mellow
husband, Stan (played by Phil Davis, who was the scruffy lead
in Leigh’s wonderful 1988 film, High Hopes), works as a
mechanic in the garage of his brother Frank (Adrian
Scarborough). The Drakes have two grown children living at
home, Ethel (Alex Kenny), a lumpish, painfully shy young woman
who works in a light-bulb factory and is courted by an equally
monosyllabic neighbor (the excellent Eddie Marsan), and Sid
(Daniel Mays), a tailor’s assistant who, with his slicked hair
and on-the-make verve, presents the sharp face of a new
generation of enterprising workers on their way up from
poverty. The Drakes hover around caricature, and none more so
than Vera herself, who oozes an unalloyed goodness of soul
that strains credibility and, eventually, patience.
VERA DRAKE ( * * 1/2)
Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis, Adrian Scarborough, Alex Kenny, Daniel Mays, Ruth Sheen.
(Rated R, 135 mins.)
And then there’s Vera’s other little job, terminating the pregnancies of exhausted Catholic mothers of seven, or those of naïve girls knocked up in quickies with married men. The compassionate Vera won’t accept a penny for her work, and, if you can believe it, she has no idea that Lily (High Hopes’ Ruth Sheen), the middleman who brokers her clients, profits handsomely from the arrangement. Armed with a grater, a bar of soap and a rubber-hose syringe wrapped in a worn cloth, Vera makes house calls, delicately asking her clients to “go all floppy for me” as she begins the procedure. Her charitable sideline is a train wreck waiting to happen, and when one of her “young ladies” ends up in the hospital, it’s only a matter of time before the police come knocking on her door in the middle of a family celebration.
Vera Drake’s script, written as always by Leigh, is bafflingly lacking in the vernacular cockney wit and cadences that gave Life Is Sweet its special sparkle. As to Vera, it’s not hard to imagine her doing what she did for free. What strains credibility is that a woman of Vera’s intelligence and compassion would be unaware that using non-sterilized instruments is dangerous, or that the unscrupulous Lily was cashing in on her kindness. The real tragedy of criminalizing abortion was not that it created inadvertent, improbable public-health hazards like Vera, but that it allowed the Lilys of this world to crawl out of the woodwork.