Oscar nominee Staunton shines in ‘Vera Drake’

Jason LeRoy

“How was your day, love?” “Well, I bought some groceries, washed the dishes, saw a few friends and performed a few abortions. You?” Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis star in Vera Drake.

Credit: Jason LeRoy

Imagine Mary Poppins as a renegade abortion doctor, and you have the titular character in Mike Leigh’s Oscar-nominated film, Vera Drake.

Vera (Academy Award nominee Imelda Staunton) is a charming, chipper little domestic living in 1950s London. She spends her days merrily popping about from house to house, working as a maid for a rich family and caring for various and sundry invalids. She also takes care of her sweet-natured husband Stan (Philip Davis) and her adult children, frumpy Ethel (Alex Kelly) and outgoing Sid (Daniel Mays).

If Vera were to describe how she spends her days flitting about the city, she would probably assert that she “helps people.” However, Vera’s definition of helping people runs the gamut from fluffing pillows and making tea to performing illicit abortions on young women.

However, she does not call what she does “abortions.” When asked if she performs abortions, she replies, “That’s what you call it, but that’s not what I do.” When asked what she does do, Vera calmly says, “I help girls out who have no one else to turn to.”

For Vera, abortion is a question of morality, but not in the traditional sense. Rather, she feels morally obliged to perform the abortions, since the girls seem to have no other options. Morality is a key facet of Vera’s worldview. She sometimes disapproves of some of the circumstances that bring her clients to her.

For instance, when a married woman comes to her seeking to terminate a child conceived by her extramarital lover, Vera disapproves of the choices the woman has made while still feeling committed to helping her. Vera does not judge the women who seek her aid. She merely gives it, freely and graciously.

However, when one of her clients becomes gravely ill following her operation, the police are tipped off to Vera’s activities and she comes under the cold, harsh scrutiny of the legal system.

The film placidly depicts the police’s treatment of Vera, allowing the audience to reflect on the “morality” of forcing a woman to remove her wedding band for the first time in 27 years, or of removing her from her family’s home during a holiday celebration.

Similarly to films such as Dead Man Walking, the film illustrates the crime and the punishment with as little fanfare or manipulation as possible, allowing the audience to meditate on whether or not justice is being served.

Vera Drake is the latest film from Oscar-nominated British director Mike Leigh. While this may seem hard to believe, Vera Drake is actually one of the most conventional and streamlined films Leigh has ever made. While the cast utilizes Leigh’s usual approach of improvisation stemming from intensive and prolonged rehearsals, this film is much more intimate in scope than the theatrical epic Topsy-Turvy or the emotionally epic Secrets & Lies (Leigh’s last big Oscar movie).

What this means for the uninitiated viewer is that you will almost certainly ask yourself during the first half, “What exactly is this movie about?” It does not have a traditional plot structure, although it comes a hell of a lot closer than most of Leigh’s films. These are usually recognizable by their large casts of remarkably unattractive British people twittering on rapidly in a barely comprehensible cockney accent about nothing in particular.

But one way in which this film is very much like Leigh’s other films is the acting. These films are completely anchored by, and only work because of, the acting. While all of the film’s performances are compelling, the obvious revelation here is Staunton as the Von Trier-esque heroine.

As Vera, Staunton displays the sort of dramatic range and authenticity that only British actors seem capable of. The performance is simultaneously inspiring and wrenching in a way that makes Hilary Swank look more like Hillary Duff.

While it seems almost unfair to force such an utterly American actress as Swank to pair off against a British (and, hence, superior) actress like Staunton, that’s what the Oscars do. And while Staunton certainly lacks the glamour of her fellow nominees, there is none more deserving of the gold than her.

Vera Drake is about abortion, but it’s not about abortion. It is not an issue movie, nor is it political in any partisan way. It is simply an authentic and deeply-felt movie about human beings, and the different meanings that family and morality hold for us.

Contact pop arts writer Jason LeRoy at [email protected].