As much as the filmmakers have tried to temper the politics in Vera Drake, anyone stalwartly against abortion likely will detest the movie for its sympathetic portrayal of a woman who happens to be an abortionist.
Some won’t be able to look past what she does, no matter how much good is in the title character’s heart. But if there ever could be a gray area on the abortion issue — as a certain presidential candidate whose name rhymes with “berry” would like us to believe — the makers of Vera Drake have found it. Compassion, not politics, drives the script and brilliant performances in this film.
In working-class, post-World War II London, Vera Drake (British stage veteran Imelda Staunton) toils cleaning other people’s houses. She spends the rest of her time caring for her two grown kids and acting as the neighborhood saint.
Whatever the task, Drake bubbles and chirps with a cheeriness that would make even Katie Couric look dour. She believes she can cheer anyone with a hot pot of tea; invites poor, lonely blokes over to join her family dinners; fusses over her ailing, crabby mother; looks in on housebound neighbors; and greets everyone with a wide, glowing grin.
Underneath the effervescence, Drake has a secret. Unbeknownst to her family, she illegally helps induce miscarriages for young women in trouble, asking nothing for her services. Drake drops in on the women and, using a medieval-looking assortment of tools that includes — I kid you not — a cheese grater, performs the procedure in a few minutes. With her ever-present smile, she gives the patient a few reassurances and leaves promptly.
After one procedure goes wrong and a young girl’s life is in jeopardy, Drake is caught and her secret exposed to her bewildered family. Some family members support her, but others are appalled.
Staunton most certainly deserves an Oscar nod. Some of her most moving scenes come after Drake’s arrest.
In a movie like this, one would expect the filmmakers to paint Drake, after her fall from grace, as a fighter, a martyr for her cause. That isn’t the case. Staunton shows Drake gasping, choking, unable to find the words to explain her actions to her husband, or even to defend herself in court.
We don’t know if Drake regrets what she’s done, or if she’s just sorry for putting her family through the drama. Even so, the pain, sorrow and injustice in the aftermath are palpable.
The realism of the art direction and beautiful photography are also notable. Each scene is swathed in grim hues of blue, gray and green. You can almost feel the cold, wet cobblestones under your feet and smell the bitterness in the city air. It works as the perfect contrast to Drake’s cheerfulness.
In the end, this film has less to say about whether abortion is ever right or wrong than it does about the social and medical mistreatment of women during that period. Vera Drake’s quiet work against such injustice may be misguided, but not even a flip-flopper could deny that it came from the heart.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].