2004-12-24 / Columnists


By Robert Snyder

Although it depicts a backdoor abortionist as a saint, “Vera Drake” is completely nonpolitical.

Writer/director Mike Leigh manages this by telling his disturbing story in a straightforward, deceptively simple way. Still, the drama of compulsive do-gooder caught in a criminal web is overpowering. It’s no wonder that Imelda Staunton in the title role of the angelic housekeeper and mother, who secretly performs free abortions, is already reeling in multiple awards (most recently best actress from New York Film Critics Online).

The time is 1950. Post-war, pre-television London is a dreary place for the Drakes, a working class family whose only ray of light is Vera. Happy to polish the silverware and fireplace iron of the rich along other cleaning, she spends her days promoting her credo, “We’ve a lot to be thankful for.” Her cheeriness is infectious, succeeding in livening up the lives of mechanic husband Stan (Phil Davis), tailor son Sid (Daniel Mays) and introverted unwed daughter/light bulb tester Ethel (Alex Kelly).

But, her philanthropy extends further. She often stops to comfort disabled shut-ins with a cup of tea and a tuck of their blankets. But more important, she provides a regular service to young girls and overburdened housewives, who find themselves “in a spot of trouble.” Working with a syringe, a bar of lye and a warm smile, Vera solves the pregnancy problems quickly and with no strings attached.

“Will I be seeing you again?” the nervous clients ask.

“No,” says Vera. “You’ll feel a bit of pain. Just sit on the toilet and it will all pass away.”

All goes well for Vera’s well-intentioned quackery, until one of her patients almost dies. After the victim’s mother reveals the abortionist’s name, hospital officials are quick to call the police. Hypocrisy in the class system is evident when the daughter (Sally Hawkins) of one of Vera’s wealthy housekeeping clients becomes pregnant after a date-rape and instantly clears away her “trouble” with well-placed funds in the hands of high-priced doctors at the hospital. Police appear at the Drake household at the most inopportune moment. Milk-toast suitor Reg (Eddie Marsan) has asked Ethel for her hand in marriage, while Stan’s brother Frank has announced his imminent fatherhood. During a small family celebration and much-needed break from the daily drudgery, Det. Sgt. Vickers (Martin Savage) and company intrude. All in the family are shocked and surprised, except Vera, who accepts her fate as she would a visit from the Grim Reaper. The final scenes involving Vera’s trial and relocation to prison are wrenching, but eclipsed emotionally by the family’s sad and deadly silent Christmas party. However, it’s interesting to see which family members stand by dear old Mum, most notably Reg, the future stronger-than-thought son-in-law.

Don’t miss “Vera Drake.” No matter what you believe about the politics of abortion, you will feel for a woman who is just trying to help young girls “in a spot of trouble” and finds that “no good deed should go unpunished.”

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