Directed by Mike Leigh. UK. 2004.

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Set in working class London in the 1950s long before abortion was legalized, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake is about a middle-aged wife and mother of two who performs abortions on young women without means only because she wants to help them out. Winner of the Golden Lion at the 61st Venice International Film Festival, Vera Drake is a powerful character study about a generous but naïve woman who allowed her good deeds to be undermined by failing to share them with her family. Imelda Staunton is outstanding as Vera, projecting a love for humanity that is hard to resist. 

Vera lives in a modest London flat with her husband Stan (Phil Davis), a garage mechanic who works with his brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough), and her two adult children Sid (Daniel Mays), a tailor, and Ethel (Alex Kelly), a withdrawn factory worker. Pregnant women are directed to Vera through a mercenary friend Lily (Ruth Sheen) who requires payment for her services, but Vera does not ask for money and seems naively unaware of Lily's commercial ventures. She works in secret, dispatching her troubled women with the same cheery efficiency that she shows when fixing a tasty dinner for her family. 

Employing a procedure that has worked effectively for centuries, Vera uses only lye, a pump and syringe, and boiled water to perform the abortion. She stays with the young women only long enough to offer them tea and sympathy, explaining that soon they will feel a pain down below, and if they get themselves to the toilet, with a little bleeding, everything will "come away". Though the film is primarily a social drama, political points are scored when Vera’s home remedies are contrasted with the professional medical procedures that only the wealthy can afford.

The family is close-knit and very supporting and when Ethel announces that she is engaged to neighbour Reg (Eddie Marsan), it seems as if their happiness is boundless. Yet, when one of Vera's patients ends up in the hospital in serious condition, a police investigation is triggered and Vera is arrested on a felony charge on the same day the family is celebrating daughter Ethel's engagement. Her personality undergoes a sudden change and the once vivacious woman is unable to mount a defense of her actions and the efficient legal system grinds out its result in typical fashion. At the end, I was left with anger at an inhumane system interested only in setting an example, a profound sadness for Vera, and a renewed experience of love for the people around me. 


Howard Schumann
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