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Friday, October 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Movie Review
"Vera Drake": an extraordinary woman, an engrossing film

By Mary Brennan
Special to The Seattle Times

SIMON MEIN
Imelda Staunton, left, gives an exquisite performance as Vera in "Vera Drake," a film about abortion in 1950s London, written and directed by Mike Leigh. Phil Davis and Helen Coker also star.
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In some ways, Mike Leigh's latest film, "Vera Drake," is a departure for the director. In others, it's quintessential Leigh, charting the ways in which every little chord of human emotion ripples through the world, touching everyone it passes through. Whether or not they even know it.

"Vera" is the story of a generous working-class woman in London in 1950, surrounded by a loving family and coming to the point in her life where she ought to be able to sit back and catch her breath. The war is over and her family has come through it intact; her son and daughter are grown, and while there's little luxury in her life, the ends meet.

By all appearances, Vera is supremely ordinary — certainly not someone you would look at twice in the street. But of course, like every supremely ordinary person in a Mike Leigh film, she is anything but: into her busy schedule of cleaning upper-class houses and caring for a variety of ailing and lonely neighbors and relatives, Vera manages to quietly perform illegal abortions in the same brisk, kind, get-on-with-it manner that she does everything.

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Showtimes and trailer

****
"Vera Drake," with Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis, Peter Wight, Ruth Sheen, Alex Kelly, Daniel Mays, Eddie Marsan. Written and directed by Mike Leigh. Rated R for depiction of strong thematic material. 125 minutes. Harvard Exit.

But Vera's ordered life lurches off the rails when one of her young patients winds up in the hospital; the authorities descend with astonishing speed, and her life is turned inside out.

One of the criticisms against Leigh in the past has been his tendency to make things black and white, to frame his working-class characters as good-hearted and pure, and his upscale characters as shrill and self-absorbed. That isn't the case here. "Vera Drake" feels gentler and more forgiving; emotionally and morally, it's a study in shades of gray. In a subplot that runs parallel to Vera's story, a rich young woman obtains a legal abortion by knowing what to say, and to whom — and by being able to afford the high cost. But her ordeal is certainly no less painful than anyone else's.

As usual with Leigh, an extraordinary ensemble cast inhabits the film. Peter Wight is hugely sympathetic as the grave, unsurprisable police inspector who gently interrogates Vera. Vera's friend Lily, an enterprising black marketeer who works as the go-between in the abortion arrangements, is played by the inimitable Ruth Sheen, a master of tiny, freighted gestures that manage to be simultaneously frightening and funny.

But Vera is the heart of the film, and Staunton gives an exquisite performance. The story moves mesmerizingly along with her as she bustles around the city.

In a scene midway through the film, Vera chats with Lily about a pregnant woman who needs her services. The woman is married, but the baby is not her husband's, and a shadow briefly crosses Vera's face. But she brushes her doubts aside quickly; it isn't for her to judge. She can help, and so she will.
 
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No film so explicitly about abortion can escape political scrutiny, and it's clear where Leigh's sympathies lie, but what's most affecting about this portrait is the way in which Vera has no agenda beyond simple kindness.

She isn't making a statement, or taking a stand; that isn't who she is.

"I help young girls out," she explains, shaken, to the police officers who come to question her. One of them presses her to elaborate, wanting her to say that she performs abortions.

"That's not what I do, dear. That's what you call it."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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