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,...
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About the Author
Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.