Vera Drake Neda Ulaby reviews the DVD edition of Vera Drake, a story of an abortionist in 1950s Britain directed by Mike Leigh and featuring an Oscar-nominated performance by Imelda Staunton. The DVD comes without adornment, but Ulaby says the film is a fine example of the way Leigh encourages his actors to become immersed in their characters.
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Vera Drake

Imelda Staunton as the title character. Fine Line Pictures hide caption

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Fine Line Pictures

Staunton and actor Philip Davis, who plays Vera Drake's husband, Stan. Fine Line Pictures hide caption

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Fine Line Pictures

Scenes from 'Vera Drake'

A British friend once told me that his grandmother, a product of postwar England, understood every color as some variation of beige. She saw the world in pinky-beige, greeny-beige, blacky-beige — each a color in the palette of her 1950s working-class North London neighborhood.

That's where Vera Drake lives. And although beige certainly abounds, director Mike Leigh finds color in the legendary drabness of the period, burnishing his setting with rich tones of olive and mustard. Amid this, the title character, bustling around her neighborhood with her bright blue eyes and lush green coat, appears as a sort of pagan saint.

When she's not scrubbing the grates of the wealthy or visiting her elderly mother, Vera comforts despairing war veterans, the sick and the aged. And, with a song in her heart and a syringe in her purse, she also quietly dispenses illegal abortions to young women.

When one of those abortions is botched, the film leads us inexorably through the legal consequences, casting a stern eye on the social inequalities of the time. (Vera's clientele include a terrified Jamaican immigrant and a battered mother of seven; the daughter of Vera's rich employer obtains a safe, equally illegal abortion at a posh hospital, for about ten times the cost.)

Leigh's films inevitably look askance at the class system but his polemic tendencies are generally checked by his humanism. Leigh's filmmaking process requires actors to become absolutely buried in their characters. Dialogue emerges through rigorous improvisations, with the actors doled out plot developments sometimes as a surprise. Supposedly, the actors playing the Drake family weren't informed of Vera's secret; when it's revealed, their shock and dismay drenches the screen.

Actress Imelda Staunton was nominated for an Oscar for this performance (she won a slew of British awards) and one of the most startling sequences arrives as she's confronted by the police. Leigh's camera grips Staunton's face mercilessly as it stiffens with shame and those cornflower eyes turn blue-black. It's as if we're watching the bruising of Vera's soul as she's forced to view her practice from a moral perspective rather different than pragmatic compassion for the "girls that got no one to help them."

What's Included:

Mike Leigh is a director who does not go for the extras. Vera Drake includes only the trailer. I suppose you could take this as a position of purity in the face of massive DVD marketing, but it's maddening that a director with such proletarian sympathies won't let the masses partake of his much-vaunted filmmaking process. I'm not talking about a Vera Drake blooper reel. The casts of Mike Leigh movies draw on rich resources, and those in Vera Drake immersed themselves in period culture — books, magazines and music — and spoke at length with several World War II veterans. It would have been illuminating to share in this process, as well as hear Staunton and the director expound upon the making of the film, which supposedly had a budget so tight a week of filming was canceled under duress. Also appreciated might have been a historian to place the film in better context for Americans, and perhaps an overview as to how it was received on various sides of the abortion debate.