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:: Vera Drake

In London, 1950, Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is one of the respectable poor in a milieu still struggling under rationing and dealing with other after-effects of WWII. A woman who instinctively “brings teacups and rolls away headaches”, Vera cleans houses by day, visits the elderly, cares for her family, and manages to fit the odd backyard abortion in between. Like Vera herself, her operations are brisk, well-meant, charitable, sanitary without being hygienic and seemingly inevitable, given the circumstances. If Vera were not performing this service, then someone else would, as is demonstrated when she “helps” a poor woman with seven children who cannot afford an eighth.

In a multi award-winning film that’s dedicated to his doctor father and midwife father, writer-director Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Topsy Turvy) delivers a perfect time capsule, distinguished by the performance of its ensemble cast. In particular, the BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated Staunton impresses as Vera, from her bustling beginnings to the emotional wreck she is after her arrest. Once discovered by the police, her bravura unravelling gives the rest of the cast not only the opportunity to develop their characters but to express different attitudes towards abortion.

Unlike in the recent film Closer, the attitudes the characters express evolve directly from their personalities. It seems hypocritical that her draper son Sid (Daniel Mays) describes what she does as “dirty”, when he deals in black market stockings to help his mates seduce young women. Contrast that with the reaction of Reg (Eddie Marsan), the bachelor neighbour whom Vera’s nudging into a relationship with her wallflower daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly). Vera’s loyal husband George (Richard Graham) won a BAFTA and was also Oscar-nominated for his strong performance.

There’s such poverty depicted here that it’s difficult for modern Australians to comprehend, accustomed as we are to dishwashers, microwaves, always having at least something to eat. Even the most evil character - Vera’s avaricious friend Lily, who profits from Vera’s voluntary “good deeds” - only does so to spend the money on food. And Vera herself is depicted as a pure soul, somewhat similar to Dogville’s Grace (played by Nicole Kidman), generous with her time, not expecting anything in return, never too tired to help. Because of this, the audience can judge her actions in isolation.

Despite requiring a little editing towards the end, Vera Drake is a masterful character study that is memorable, emotionally authentic and, given the current political landscape in Britain and Australia, even timely.