This quietly powerful film tells the story of a 1950's middle-class English family, as it is torn apart by the actions of one woman. Vera Drake, the mother is her family's emotional center. A small woman, with bright blue eyes and always a kind word, Vera bustles through her days doing odd favors for housebound invalids, always making the world a bit friendlier for the lonely souls she meets along the way. But Vera has another side, although even this task is carried out with her usual gentle reserve: Vera helps women with troublesome pregnancies. For years, Vera has visited the women who need her services. Inevitably one girl becomes deathly ill and the police show up on Vera's doorstep just as her family is celebrating her daughter's engagement. Vera instinctively knows why the authorities are there, but has never spoken a word about her activities to her husband or grown children. Devastated over the girl's illness, Vera breaks down, barely able to speak to the inspector or to tell her husband what she has been doing.
Filled with character actors whose faces reveal their every emotion, this film is brilliantly acted, more implied by what isn't said than the damning words of jurisprudence. Imelda Staunton plays a remarkable nuanced Vera Drake, a simple woman, devoted to her family. Confronted by her actions, Vera literally cannot cope with the overwhelming emotions, as though she hasn't thought past her actions. The family is unbelieving, offering various reactions: "It's dirty."; "If you can't feed 'em, you can't love 'em, can you?"; "If she told me I would've put a stop to it." The film makes no judgments, other than the obvious illegality of Vera's actions; the scenes speak for themselves, women preparing for Vera's ministrations, each with her own burden, fear, guilt, a sense of the forbidden, furtively taking Vera into their dank, moldy flats. In contrast, a wealthy young woman has other resources for an unwanted pregnancy, a legal recourse, with a psychiatrist giving approval and a doctor performing the procedure. This one scene points to the vast differences of privilege and poverty.
The cinematography dramatizes the danger and fear, stark images of Vera trudging up and down flights of stairs in dreary tenements, comforting frightened women, working as a domestic in the homes of the wealthy, the inspectors converging on Vera's home, large men, their overcoats flapping, as imposing as a procession of clerics and just as intimidating, although the police treat the woman with every courtesy. Vera Drake is a stunning film, an unbiased look at the 1950's and the somewhat draconian measures of the law, a fascinating depiction of people caught in circumstances that overwhelm them and the measures they resort to for relief. Luan Gaines.