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
Mike Leigh, 2004
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
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