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VERA DRAKE - SECRETS AND LIVES

Mike Leigh’s Venice prize-winner Vera Drake is a film about a woman with a secret she keeps even from her family - but which will destroy all their lives when it finally comes out. Nick Roddick reports reports on a film that looks at abortion in 1950 England – only to prove how little has changed, as Australia is again debating the issue.

Not many directors have won the top prize at the Cannes or Venice film festivals and even fewer have earned honours from both. But with his latest work, Vera Drake, Mike Leigh can now claim that accomplishment. Leigh, who won the Palme d’or at Cannes in 1996 for Secrets and Lies, has now added a Golden Lion to his resume, as Vera Drake took home top honours from this year’s Venice Film Festival, and its star, Imelda Staunton, was named Best Actress. (Leigh has since also earned Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscar Nominations, and Staunton is in the Best Actress list.)

Despite its success, there are few films which have less in common with the glamour and sunshine of the Venice Lido. Set against the grim backdrop of a sunless, grey winter in post-war London, Vera Drake tells the story of a simple, good-natured woman who cleans the houses of the rich, cares for elderly relations, and is always putting the kettle on for a nice cup of tea.

But Vera also has a secret - she ‘helps out girls who have got into trouble’. In an era when birth-control was entirely a male domain and legal terminations were only impossible with considerable subterfuge about the woman’s mental condition, she quietly carries out abortions. Not that Vera would ever use the word - or dream of telling her family about what she does: one of the most striking elements about the film is the fact that sex, the cause of all the trouble, is never once mentioned. As the poet Philip Larkin - who grew up during the period in which the film is set - once wryly noted: “Sex was invented in 1963/Much too late for me”. 

"a moment of real family happiness becomes a time of tragedy"

Vera takes no payment for her services, but does not realise that her black-marketeering friend, Lili (Ruth Sheen), charges two guineas for each introduction - a discovery which stuns Vera almost as much as her inevitable arrest.

The humiliation of being driven away in a police car and brought up in court is, though, what destroys Vera and her world after one of her procedures (using only soapy water and a primitive bulb-and-tube pump) causes an infection and the middle-class girl nearly dies. The police are called in and she is arrested in the middle of a family party to announce the engagement of Vera and Stan’s shy daughter, Ethel, to their equally shy neighbour Reg. Thus, a moment of real family happiness becomes a time of tragedy.

In the period during which the film is set - either side of Christmas 1950 - almost everybody would have “known someone” (or known how to find someone) who could take care of any problems that might happen ‘down below’. But abortion remained a major crime and, although the investigating officers (Peter Wight and Martin Savage) are fair and even kind to Vera, her imprisonment is a foregone conclusion.

Vera Drake marks the first collaboration between Leigh and Staunton, a well-known stage and television actress who has appeared in a limited number of movies, including Shakespeare in Love, Sense and Sensibility and Crush. But many of the other cast and crew are Leigh regulars: cinematographer Dick Pope is making his sixth feature with the director (he won the top prize at Camerimage in 1996 for Secrets and Lies); producer Simon Channing Williams, with whom Leigh is partnered in Thin Man Films, has produced every film since Life Is Sweet (1991); production designer Eve Stewart, Oscar-nominated for Topsy-Turvy, here makes her sixth feature with Leigh; actors Jim Broadbent and Alun Corduner, who played Gilbert and Sullivan respectively in Topsy-Turvy, contribute cameo performances; and above all Phil Davis, who was in High Hopes, gives a performance as Vera’s gentle, caring husband, Stan, that is every bit a match for that of Staunton.

"a film I’ve been wanting to make for a very long time"

Dubbed “The movie every woman must see” by the London Evening Standard when it opened the capital’s Film Festival last year, Vera Drake is, says Leigh, “a film I’ve been wanting to make for a very long time”.

Introducing a screening at the closing night of the recent Festival du Film Britannique in Dinard, France, a couple of weeks earlier, Phil Davis was characteristically restrained, simply declaring himself “incredibly proud” to have been involved. It is a sentiment which could justifiably be shared by everyone who worked on the film.

Published February 10, 2005

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