Portrait of a serial killer. It wouldnâ€™t be an entirely inapposite subtitle for this masterly movie. Mike Leigh captures his heroineâ€™s secret life, her modus operandi and her final calamity with the icy skill belonging to a master of suspense. It is as gripping and fascinating as the best thriller, as well as being a stunningly acted and heartwrenchingly moving drama of the postwar London working class. Imelda Staunton has already picked up an armful of awards for her performance as Vera Drake, the middle-aged cleaning lady with a hidden existence. She will certainly collect a whole lot more.
It is 1950, and Vera is cheerfully getting on with things. She pops in to help neighbours, nurses her elderly mother and looks after the family. But this life co-exists with, to paraphrase another Leigh title, a secret and a lie: something sheâ€™s kept quiet from everyone, including her loved ones. With her trusty kit-bag of syringe and other assorted implements, Vera has for decades been â€œhelping outâ€™â€™ wretched girls (and despairing married women who canâ€™t possibly feed another mouth) who have â€œgot themselves into troubleâ€, for which service, she does not accept a penny piece. Veraâ€™s vocation as an abortionist exists entirely within the concentric circles of criminal concealment and euphemistic taboo. It is not merely that it is a secret from the authorities: it is a secret from Vera herself. She has no language to describe what she does or reflect on it in any way. The closest she comes to telling the miserable women what will happen to them after their appallingly dangerous treatment is to say that they will soon get a pain â€œdown belowâ€™â€™, at which point they should go to the lavatory and â€œit will come awayâ€™â€™. So when one of these women is taken to hospital almost dying in agony, and poor respectable Vera is confronted by the police, she is as hapless and hopeless as her victim-patients, with no way of defending or explaining herself. Her only response is mutely to absorb unimaginable quantities of shame.
Vera Drakeâ€™s overwhelming mood of danger and transgression reminds of the moment in Michael Powellâ€™s â€˜Peeping Tomâ€™ when the seedy newsagent and his furtive customer quickly hide the pornography as an innocent girl comes in to buy sweets. Leigh pitilessly captures a similar kind of unmentionable fear and disgrace to which working women were subject â€” but which the middle classes with money and contacts could avoid. And, with a tragedianâ€™s ruthlessness, he etches that same fear and disgrace on Drakeâ€™s face. It is the face of someone forced to acknowledge the elephant in the living room. Imelda Stauntonâ€™s Vera simultaneously ages 30 years and becomes a terrified little girl. It is a most moving and haunting performance.
The triumph of the film is in unselfconsciously juxtaposing Veraâ€™s crime with her ordinary public life as wife and mother, and with making us care about this other story just as much or even more. With compassion and gentleness, Leigh tells us about her husband Stan (Phil Davis) and his life in the motor trade with a brother who, despite having done better for himself materially, envies Stanâ€™s simple happiness. Vera welcomes into hearth and home a lonely neighbour, Reg (Eddie Marsan) who, movingly, becomes part of the family. Now, it might prove tempting for the movieâ€™s distributors to market Vera Drake as a provocatively â€œneutralâ€™â€™ talking point on abortion for the benefit of American moviegoers and, indeed, Oscar voters. But there is actually no fence-sitting on the issue. Leighâ€™s coup is to transfer the sympathy and dramatic emphasis away from the pregnant woman to the abortionist herself â€” a brilliant upending of the traditional stereotypes and pieties. This is not, however, the same thing as neutrality, and the film plainly shows the squalid hypocrisy of Britain before the Abortion Act. Vera Drake looks to me like a fully formed modern tragedy with a towering central performance from Imelda Staunton as poor, muddled Vera â€” and Staunton couldnâ€™t be so good if she was not given such superb support. This could be Mike Leighâ€™s masterpiece: that is, his masterpiece so far, because at 61 years old, he shows every sign of entering a glorious late period of artistry and power.