Vera Drake

Abortion propels the plot, but family is the heart of the tale.

When I anticipated seeing "Cider House Rules," I expected an extended treatise on abortion only to see a film about the need of a child for a home with a sidebar about abortion. Mike Leigh's ("Secrets and Lies") "Vera Drake" puts me in the same situation: It is a film about an abortionist who is a caregiver for young women "in trouble," her neighborhood, and her family. Abortion propels the plot, but family is the heart of the tale.

Imelda Staunton will be nominated more than once for her incomparable performance as a London charwoman in 1950, when England is recovering from WWII and the working class struggles to keep their flats warm and adequately provisioned. Staunton's pervasive smile and private humming define her happy world for the first half of the film. So honest does she play her character that when she performs her abortions, in between her regular care giving duties, there was nothing amiss in this perfect world. Leigh tracks her through her daily routine, veritably singing along with her as she gives of herself completely. Only the most discerning and detached audience could consider she is too oblivious to the danger of what she does and the felony she has been committing for almost 20 years.

Nemesis is a lame and slow goddess, but she usually catches us all. In Vera's case, she is caught and brought to trial. Perhaps in place of the audience itself, an inspector (Peter Wright) painfully and caringly interrogates Vera, aware that no matter how sympathetic he is to a cleaning lady who helps young women, she will be dealt the measure of the law for a crime about which no one has a good word to say. The Offense Against a Person Act of 1861 will be enforced, and therein lies Mike Leigh's brilliance: The arguments for and against abortion are subtly and briefly made; "Roe vs. Wade" is still in contention.

But Leigh's real genius is in the character of the family, which struggles between generations to understand abortion and stand behind this loving mother. The performances are uniformly first rate, enhanced by Leigh's well-known strategy of letting his actors develop their dialogue in a group. As he did with Brenda Blethyn in "Secrets and Lies" (1996) his titular actress here becomes her character in an organic way few other directors could foster. (I still believe Blethyn's Cynthia one of the most inspired performances of the '90's and deserving an Oscar over Frances McDormand's in "Fargo.")

Shakespeare in "Henry VI, Part 1" expresses the danger of care giving:

"Care is no cure, but rather corrosive,/ For things that are not to be remedied."