It must be so annoying to be a filmmaker and put so much care into revealing your theme at exactly the right moment, only for the marketing people to spoil it on the DVD box. I certainly know it's annoying as a viewer. I would much rather have been able to see this film cold. So if you haven't heard anything and think you might want to see it, stop reading now!

Vera Drake
Mike Leigh, 2004

#6, 2004 Skandies

There's actually not a whole lot to this one. We meet the title character, a chipper, matronly cleaning lady in Britain in 1950. We watch her visiting shut-ins, inviting over a lonely bachelor, tending to her husband and grown children. Then we learn that that's not all the helping-out she does around the neighborhood: once or twice a week she pops in on an unfortunate girl who's "gotten herself in a bit of trouble" and performs the proverbial back-alley abortion on her. That's the first half of the movie. Then comes the turning point, as one of her patients develops complications, leading to a police investigation. Mrs. Drake is arrested. The wheels of justice grind away at her case and her family. She weeps a lot. That's the second half of the movie.

Reading up on this one, I learned that to a great extent it's all a bit of a stunt: there was no script, and the actors in the family scenes weren't told about the abortion scenes, so when the police show up, the performers were genuinely surprised at this turn of events in what they'd thought was just a slice-of-life period drama. And verisimilitude is indeed Vera Drake's big strength: I have a hard time imagining the people I saw in the movie as 21st-century actors. What's more, Pattern 23 actually served to increase my interest this time around, as the unfamiliar setting gave me something besides the rather thin material to focus on. (I loved looking at all the different houses and apartments.) On the flip side, this verisimilitude makes it all the more jarring when the dramatic wires make themselves visible. For instance, it's not enough that Vera is arrested. She has to be arrested at a party. Not just a party — a party for her daughter's engagement. No, not dramatic enough! A party for her daughter's engagement and her sister-in-law's pregnancy! Apparently you don't need a formal script to trot out chestnuts from the Screenwriting 101 handbook. Pretty hackneyed.

Vera Drake does make one interesting narrative move by setting up an early subplot in which the rich daughter in one of the houses Vera cleans is raped. It could not be more obvious that the plot of the movie will involve the rich daughter procuring Vera's services. We even see her asking a friend to refer her to someone who can terminate her pregnancy. And the friend sends her to... a real doctor! Because abortion was legal in Britain if you could afford the operation and get a referral from a psychiatrist! The pregnant daughter and Vera never cross paths! Nice misdirection there, and if you only watched the first half of the movie, you might think the main purpose of the film was to decry this double standard. But no — when you spend half your running time showing Mrs. Drake in tears, you're pretty much committing yourself to making your main argument that laws should have double standards and let off well-meaning simple folk with a warning.

Oh yeah, and I was interested to learn that using "f" in place of "th" (e.g., "I can't fink of anyfing more irritating") isn't just something teenage British girls do on AIM — people actually talk like that. Shudder.

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