Abortion is one of the most pressing issues of our time, even if it is merely a social one. Well, it should be a social one, but certain special interest groups and the most amazingly intelligent President ever in the history of the United States (note sarcasm) have turned it into a moral and even constitutional battle. Personally, I consider the mess we've made of the world, Social Security, education and discrimination against gays more important, but obviously not everyone agrees.
Sorry, this review has already turned into a political spiel, so let's get to the movie. "Vera Drake" is not directly about abortion. It's about one woman who performs back alley abortions and is put on trial for it. Director Mike Leigh ("Topsy-Turvy") never specifically addresses the really tough issues at hand, but for all you pro-lifers out there, you should be warned - Vera Drake is portrayed in a very positive light, even if she does make mistakes. The movie is about the consequences of her actions rather than the actions themselves; she is a nice woman who believes she is doing the right thing, but the law says otherwise. Her crimes devastate her family and friends, as well as herself.
The message I see in this film is Leigh's attempt to tell the world what would happen if abortion is banned once again. For President Bush, pushing to deny women the right to choose will appeal to his so-called "moral" constituents (Which I think is a bunch of B.S.), but will the ban actually help? No. Instead, we will just return to the days of "Vera Drake," where abortions have to be carried out in secret without the help of doctors and proper medical equipment. Furthermore, people just wanting to do what they believe is right will be put in prison, even if they don't intend to harm people and those very same people ask for their help. In what democracy should something like this be illegal?
Regardless of your views (though I can imagine that any right-wingers have stopped reading by now), "Vera Drake" offers up some good questions, even if the movie itself is just okay. Interestingly enough, "Vera Drake" was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars, and while the screenplay would be worthy of such a nomination, there's only one problem - the movie was made without a screenplay. The performances were at least partially improvised, according to IMDB, and none of the actors, aside from Imelda Staunton, even knew what the movie was about up until the time they filmed the scene where everything is revealed. I wouldn't have guessed any of that. The dialogue is crisp and believable, although in hindsight there are long stretches where there is little dialogue (and a lot of crying). Furthermore, the characters are well-done and the acting fine.
Little need be said about Imelda Staunton, who was nominated for an Academy Award and at one point considered the frontrunner to win. She delivers a spellbinding performance, and since you probably haven't seen her in anything else it is even easier to believe that she is the character in the movie. This is a great performance.
The movie itself is also well-done. Supposedly, the movie was shot on such a low budget that a week's worth of filming was scrapped altogether and the actors were required to hum a generic soundtrack because the production couldn't afford song rights. Again, I didn't notice. "Vera Drake" has a very rich but understandably bleak look to it, and if the budget really was as low as is reported, Leigh pulled some real magic out of his hat.
The only shortcoming of the film is that it really never goes anywhere. The two hours it takes to tell the characters' stories is just fine. It's never slow or tedious, and again the performances are good. Nevertheless, the last fifty minutes are spent watching Mrs. Drake getting interrogated, charged with her crime and put on trial, and that's it. Leigh seemed to be so enthralled by the performances of his actors that he decided to follow them from one miniscule detail to the next without taking into account the greater picture. What happened to Vera Drake later in life? How did her family handle things later on? Did her friends turn their backs on her permanently?
Leigh has churned out another beautiful and well-acted movie that raises some good questions. It is a moving and sad film, but he still could have taken it to another level by focusing more on how the community and her family react to the trial and its aftermath.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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