February 8, 2005 -- This is a straightforward story of Vera Drake, a woman convicted of performing illegal abortions in London in the 1950s. She is caught when one of her patients nearly dies. She confesses to police, pleads guilty and is sentenced to prison.
The movie ducks the tough moral issues, but instead focuses on the issue of whether the law regulating abortion is applied equally. Of course it is not. A wealthy woman, Susan (Sally Hawkins of “All or Nothing”) is shown getting a legal abortion at the same time Drake is being punished for providing a free abortion for a poor woman. The wealthy woman finds that getting an abortion is easy, as long as you have the money to work the system. A legal abortion is available to those who can prove mental distress. This means you have to find a receptive doctor and psychiatrist willing to prescribe an abortion. Since Susan became pregnant because she was raped, proving distress is a slam dunk. In fact most of the women in the movie are getting abortions for reasons widely seen as acceptable, at least by those who favor abortion rights.
Imelda Staunton's (“Shakespeare in Love”) performance as Vera Drake hits just the right notes. She deserves the Oscar nomination she got. Equally impressive are the other main performers in the movie, and all the supporting actors, inclduing Ruth Sheen (“All or Nothing”), who plays Vera Drake's two-faced friend, Lily. This is as fine an example of ensemble acting as I have seen in a long time.
The script is also very well-written. The characters are all fully fleshed out and they are all very believable. There are no false notes anywhere. The movie is flawlessly executed, but it doesn't have much dramatic punch because of a lack of suspense. There are no plot surprises and it avoids the toughest abortion issues. It does thoroughly explore the myriad of reactions to Vera Drake's plight, from sympathy to disgust. It briefly examines the health and safety issues related to abortion. Surprisingly, the police are portrayed somewhat sympathetically.
The film leaves the impression that you are supposed to think that abortions are O.K. because Vera is a nice person who doesn't charge anything for the abortions. She performs abortion out of the kindness of her heart. She's just helping women in trouble, as she puts it. She's depicted as a saintly abortionist who helps care for invalids. By avoiding the issue of morality, the movie loses a lot of the dramatic impact it might have had. Perhaps writer director Mike Leigh (“Topsy Turvy”) is unaware that abortion is a hot button issue, and that many people think it is murder. For whatever reason, Leigh chose to tiptoe around the ethical elephant in the room, to the detriment of the film. Only true believers in abortion rights might be blind to this flaw in the film. This film rates a B.
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