Vera Drake (2005)

Mike Leigh’s second period drama, an understated, immensely nuanced portrait of kind-hearted Vera (Imelda Staunton) who performs illegal abortions for desperate women in 1950s London.

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“Vera Drake doesn’t seem historical, only a different kind of present. Births, planned, unplanned and avoided, are a recurring theme in Leigh’s work, but to see Vera Drake as simply about abortion is to sell it very short.”
Megan Ratner, Bright Lights Film Journal, 2005

Vera Drake’s concluding dedication to “the loving memory of my parents, a doctor and a midwife” underscores how personal the material was to Mike Leigh. He recreates the 1950s of his own childhood with characteristic visual precision, but it’s the actors who bring it to life, thanks to their meticulous research into their characters’ backstories, speech and body language.

Vera (Imelda Staunton) is an apparently archetypal Cockney charwoman, who leads a double life as a backstreet abortionist, helping young working-class girls ‘in trouble’. (The film’s parallel narrative illustrates how much easier it was for the well-off to procure similar, albeit equally illegal, services). Inevitably, something goes wrong. A client nearly dies, and the police come calling – whereupon Vera’s shocked family has to decide whether to close ranks or ostracise her.

Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) offers a similar study of illegal abortion, in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania.

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