British director Mike Leigh came of age in the 1960s, and his movies deliver sensitive studies of working-class English life, with its signature mix of drear and cheer. Vera Drake follows a cleaning lady whose sunny disposition does daily battle with the postwar London gloom of 1950. Whether kneeling to polish an andiron in a mansion of a wealthy employer, or sitting at her aged mother’s bedside, or visiting the cramped flats where she looks in on elderly and ailing family friends, Vera is a paragon of stout, energetic good will-humming contentedly to herself, touting at every turn the cure-all of a “Cappatay, dear.” An adoring family-her auto-mechanic husband, Stan; her son Sid, a dapper tailor’s assistant; her timid wallflower of a daughter, Ethel; and Ethel’s equally shy, shlumpy suitor, Reg-rely on Vera as their heart and soul; the film captures a sentimental, working man’s mother-love that Leigh both respects and fondly, gently satirizes. “She’s got a heart of gold, that woman,” Stan muses to his brother, who agrees: “she’s a diamond.” Nothing gleams or sparkles in this drab world except Vera’s goodness.
Yet Vera, we soon discover, has a secret life, kept hidden even from her family. For years she’s been performing illegal abortions, for free, on girls in trouble and wives with too many children to feed-frightened women with no money, who turn to her in desperation. Toting a satchel containing lye soap, a grater, and a red-rubber hose, she visits their dingy apartments, where she administers a toxic abortifacient. Up till now, Vera has escaped detection. But when one of the procedures goes awry, and a girl nearly dies, the law closes in.
At first glance, Vera Drake seems to offer a straightforward pitch for abortion rights. In parallel narratives Leigh contrasts the risks faced by Vera’s impoverished patients with the safer lot of Susan, the daughter of an upper-class family whose house Vera cleans and who, after being raped by a brutal lout she is seeing, obtains a legal abortion assisted by nurses, doctors, even a psychiatrist. This option is denied the poorer women Vera services, and most reviewers have seen Vera’s fearless perseverance as Leigh’s tribute to “the heroism of abortion providers”: “a radiant martyr” (David Edelstein, Slate); “a saintly figure” (Manohla Dargis, the New York Times).
But the saintly view of Vera slights the ambiguity in which Leigh wraps her-the subtle strangeness of her character, which unfolds as the film progresses. Initially, Vera’s bedside patter with the frightened girls comes off as a generous attempt to reassure them (when they feel some pain “down below,” she advises, they should get to the toilet and “just wait a bit”). But we begin to hear something darker in this unvarying litany of bromides. It is intended, we realize, less to diminish the dread of the procedure for her patients than for Vera herself; what sounds first like a ritual of comfort is really a mechanism of denial. In one scene, a terrified teenaged girl asks, “But what is it I’m waiting for?” Vera blinks in perplexity. “For it to come away, dear....It’ll all come away, and you’ll be right as rain.” Then she walks out, leaving the girl sobbing.
Bit by bit Leigh illuminates a troubling and comprehensive detachment. We can’t see what, if any, impression Vera’s own actions are making on her, until eventually we begin to wonder whether she even fully understands what she is doing. It’s creepy to hear her greeting her patients precisely the same way she announces afternoon tea-“Let’s put the kettle on, dear!” It seems Vera has “helped” girls for decades without ever really clearly facing the nature of her actions, let alone the consequences. How many girls may have died or become very ill? She has no idea.
Veteran stage and TV actress Imelda Staunton plays Vera with near-perfect reticence, keeping her hidden behind a barricade of cheerful determination. From the moment Vera’s world caves in, with the police literally knocking at her door, Staunton’s face takes on the dazed, harrowed look of someone suffering a psychic break. When a police detective interrogates her-“What is it that you do, Mrs. Drake?”-Vera collapses in stammering, anguished euphemisms. “I help young girls out,” she says, “when...when they can’t manage.” He presses: does she mean, when they’re pregnant? How exactly does she help them out? “I help them start their bleeding again.” And when finally he zeroes in on the truth-she performs abortions, doesn’t she?-Vera flinches in horror. “That’s not what I do. That’s what you call it.” Her denial isn’t tactical, but psychological. The truth must never be spoken, not even to herself.
Leigh doesn’t tell us how Vera got this way. Did she suffer a traumatic and unwanted pregnancy in her own youth? Or is it merely a mid-century, working-class sexual repression so overwhelming it is pathological? In a way, Vera Drake presents the flip side of the bullying sexual hungers displayed in Naked, Leigh’s gritty 1994 study of a homeless man ravenous for sex and shelter in the streets of London. Vera’s is a world completely stricken of sex-her marriage is all flannel PJs and the fond peck on the cheek; and the engagement she engineers between her hopelessly shy daughter and the blandly sexless Reg promises more (or less) of the same. Leigh implies that at some level, a profound split between erotic and familial love-sexual repression, in other words-both parallels and facilitates the psychological dissociation with which Vera practices abortion. The unwanted babies conceived by single mothers are about sex, while Vera is about family; and in a symbolic sense she is lethally enforcing family values against the anarchic, antifamily forces of erotic life. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that psychologically, at least in cinematic terms, Vera is a kind of serial killer. Her “heroism” rests on a near-total psychological compartmentalization. What critics have missed in Leigh’s portrayal of Vera is a singular mix of affections-admiring, yes, but also appalled. She is both hero and monster. Is this incoherent, or a (bold) synthesis of moral opposites?
The last third of the movie assumes a conventional form of tragedy and martyrdom. Leigh leaves little doubt that the law makes a pretty blunt instrument to use on someone like Vera Drake, especially in the hands of overbearing cops and pompous magistrates. Within Vera’s family, meanwhile, reactions range from the grandstanding righteousness of her sister-in-law (“How can she be so selfish?”), to the hurt and outrage of her son (“It’s little babies!” he upbraids her), to the rationalizations of Reg, bursting out in defense of a working-class woman’s right to abortion (“It’s all right if you’re rich. But if you can’t feed ’em, you can’t love ’em, can you?”).
Leigh puts all these arguments out on the table, perhaps a little too conveniently, as in an ethics seminar. But in the end he isn’t after a simple justification for Vera. His interests are psychological and sociological, and his portrayal of Vera as abortionist insists upon an ambiguity, or even an ambivalence, in which different viewers are likely to see the different shapes of their own commitments. “Whatever she done,” Vera’s husband says, “she done it out of the kindness of her heart.” It is immensely to Leigh’s credit that he shows this to be much, much more complicated than many think.