The tears of Vera Drake

"Vera Drake" is essentially two hours of close-ups on Imelda Staunton’s face as she blubbers uncontrollably after being arrested for performing illegal abortions. Granted, that’s somewhat of an oversimplification, but it pretty much captures the visual experience of the film. A cute little old English lady crying in her tiny, ochre-tinted home, crying at the police station, crying in court and crying in jail. Occasionally, she also makes tea.

Claustrophobia dominates the interior scenes, except in the barren and airy shots of English legal buildings and the cavernous prison Vera ends up in. What saves this film from imploding under the oppressive weight of its settings is the plot and gripping acting by Staunton as Vera. Basically, this is how it breaks down. Vera Drake is a cheery, heart-of-gold mother, wife, maid, and good Samaritan who also "helps girls out" when they find themselves "in a family way." She mostly tends to women who can’t afford the expensive, sterile and rich-white-male dominated medical alternative. Her crude methods eventually land her in trouble with the police, who hunt her down and take her away during her daughter’s engagement party. The rest of the film is mainly a series of intense views of different people’s crying faces, primarily Vera’s.

It’s clear that director/writer Mike Leigh wishes to impress upon us the obsolescence of the value system that sent Vera to prison, and instead of wielding that message like a club to bludgeon his audience into some kind of anti-establishment fervor, he does an excellent job of presenting the humanity of all sides of the issue. Even being as strongly in favor of a woman’s right to choose as I am, and as much as I sympathized with Vera, I still found myself kind of cheering for the surprisingly sensitive detectives, and even the doctors and nuns as they all chastised Vera for her abortion methodology.

The depth and care with which these characters were rendered and acted prevented the film from becoming a black-and-white session of choir preaching. I’m in the choir. I’ve heard that sermon a million times, and the sensitivity with which this issue was portrayed was extremely refreshing. Out of all the characters, it was in fact Vera who showed the least amount of depth and growth. Her character arc was nonexistent compared to the rest of her family. Her daughter overcame her social phobia and became engaged to a reclusive war vet neighbor. Her son, a slick worker with an eye on the middle class, is forced to deal with his values around abortion and labors to forgive his mother for what he sees as an unmitigated wrong. Her husband has the reality of his wife shattered and must reconstruct it, while dealing with his feelings of disappointment and betrayal. All struggle with the knowledge of what their beloved Vera had been keeping from them for so many years.

Yet Vera herself undergoes no change. She lives her unspoiled life of kindness, and then, when it’s shattered, does not adapt to the situation. She just cries. And while this might be effective in communicating what a nice old lady she is, it doesn’t do justice to Imelda Staunton’s powerful acting and the complexity of the film in general. For a film with such depth, it’s disappointing to see such a one-dimensional lead. Without Staunton bringing as much life and humanity to the role as she did, this film would have been skirting dangerously close to a saccharine tear-jerker.