Why don’t you “Put the kettle on” on and read this review of director Mike Leigh’s 2004 drama that is very engaging and very British. He won numerous awards along with actress Imelda Staunton, while also being nominated for dozens more.
Taking place in early 1950s London, Staunton gives a jolly good performance in a career defining role as Vera Drake, a woman who “helps” out other women who can’t manage. This helping involves performing illegal abortions. Before you start judging her, we see her as the absolute model of perfection. She cleans houses, cares for her elderly mother as well as her own family. She has a husband and two grown children (Ethel and Sid) who all live in a cramped flat with barely enough room to turn around. Vera is so kind, loving and generous you are reminded of Mary Poppins. Repressed childhood trauma and a need to help people led her down this path.
She has done this for many years and has never taken any money for doing it. Her longtime friend Susan brings her the address of a woman in need and Vera arrives with her bag of tools. “First thing we do is put the kettle on”. We see Vera visit a number of women all of whom deal differently with their situation. Some are doing it for the first time, while some disturbingly use to it. Vera rationalizes her actions by feeling she is doing good and helping women at the direst hour.
When a young girl becomes ill and needs to be hospitalized, Vera’s life and spotless reputation are about to be aborted as well. During her daughter’s engagement dinner, the police come knocking, and Vera has a huge “oh shit” moment. The film then takes a strong emotional turn as her family has to deal with this secret life of hers. At the police station, she admits to everything and signs a full confession. For the rest of the film, Vera is in a state of shock and disbelief. Her bail is posted but her family life will never be the same. Her son Sid is disgusted by what she has done and refuses to be in the same room with her, while her daughter is sheepish but supportive. Her husband is torn and bewildered but remains supportive as well. This brings us to a very awkward Christmas celebration in contrast to the very joyful and lively engagement party from earlier (before the police crashed it). Vera eventually goes on trial and is sentenced.
Although she does perform these abortions Vera is not a monster, she is not a leftist radical. She is a sympathetic mother of mercy to countless women. Because of the subject matter, this film will no doubt divide people but the character of Vera Drake is one to remember.
In recent years Imelda Staunton can be seen playing Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies.