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Vera Drake is a 2004 British film directed by Mike Leigh. It tells the story of a working class woman in Londonmarker in 1950, who performs illegal abortions for women in need. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and it was nominated for three Academy Awards and won multiple BAFTAs.


Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is tirelessly devoted to her family, looking after her husband and children, her elderly mother, and a sick neighbour. Vera's daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) works in a factory, and her son Sid (Daniel Mays) tailors men's suits. Her husband Stanley (Phil Davis) is a car mechanic. Although Vera and her family do not live lavishly, their strong family bonds hold them together.

Vera works as a house cleaner. However, unbeknown to her family, she also serves as a backroom abortionist. She receives no money for this, believing her help to be an act of generosity, though her partner Lily (Ruth Sheen), a hard-bitten wheeler-dealer who also carries on a black-market trade in scarce postwar foodstuffs, does charge for arranging the abortions without Vera's knowledge. We are also introduced to a character named Susan (Sally Hawkins), who is the daughter of one of Vera's employers and whose story is one of the film's subplots. Susan is raped by a man she was dating, becomes pregnant, and asks a friend to put her in contact with a doctor who performs abortions. In Susan's case, the psychiatrist helpfully prompts her with the correct answers, so that he can recommend her abortion on the grounds that she might be desperate enough to harm herself.

The sums of money might seem rather small to modern viewers, but two guineas in 1950 would be £48 in 2005. A hundred guineas, the price of a psychiatrist-approved abortion, would be £2400.


In Vera Drake, Leigh incorporated elements of his own childhood. He grew up in north Salfordmarker, Lancashiremarker, and experienced a very ordinary but socio-economically mixed life as the son of a doctor and a midwife. In the book The Cinema of Mike Leigh: A Sense of the Real, Leigh said, “I lived in this particular kind of working-class district with some relations living in slightly leafier districts up the road. So there was always a tension, or at least a duality: those two worlds were forever colliding. So you constantly get the one world and its relationship with the other going on in my films.”


Mike Leigh is known to use unusual methods to achieve realism in his films. “Leigh’s actors literally have to find their characters through improvisation and research the ways people in specific communities speak and behave. Leigh and his cast immerse themselves in the local life before creating the story” (1994: 7: Watson 29). Critic Roger Ebert explains,
"His method is to gather a cast for weeks or months of improvisation in which they create and explore their characters. I don’t think the technique has ever worked better than here; the family life in those cramped little rooms is so palpably real that as the others wait around the dining table while Vera speaks to policeman behind the kitchen door, I felt as if I were waiting there with them. It’s not that we 'identify' so much as that the film quietly and firmly includes us."

Leigh often uses improvisation in order to capture his actors' unscripted emotions. When filming Vera Drake, only Imelda Staunton knew ahead of time that the subject of the film was abortion. None of the cast members playing the family members, including Staunton, knew that Vera was to be arrested until the moment the actors playing the police knocked on the door of the house they were using for rehearsals. Their genuine reactions of shock and confusion provided the raw material for their dialogue and actions.


In this film, as in other Leigh works, such as High Hopes, the audience can observe the different social classes interacting. The Drakes are a working class family, while Stanley’s brother Frank and his wife Joyce have moved into the middle class. Susan and her mother are upper class. Owing to Susan's social status, she is able to arrange and pay for a safe abortion, while the women assisted by Vera are not.

The importance of family is an ongoing theme in the film. Jim Leach argues that “While Leigh seems to offer a fairly conservative view of gender politics through his recurring female characters who want to become mothers, his films highlight the discrepancy between the ideological emphasis on the importance of family and the actual social conditions that place external and internal pressures on family relationships” (61). In Vera Drake the character of Joyce, Frank's wife, who claims that she wants to become a mother, is also depicted as the most selfish character in the film. Barely middle-class and insecure, she is preoccupied with material wealth and improving her social status. Her response to Vera's arrest is to distance herself from this shame and embarrassment, though her long-awaited pregnancy plays a role in her reaction. Vera's own household, by contrast, is filled with warmth, laughter, and uncomplicated happiness. Vera and Stanley Drake have a strong marriage, and after Vera’s secret emerges, although the family has mixed feelings about what she has done, they remain loyal to her.

Another significant theme involves morality versus legality. Morally, Vera believes that she is doing the right thing by “helping out” women who do not wish to give birth. She feels driven to perform these procedures out of what she feels is charity, and her personal understanding of the consequences of unwanted pregnancies in her socio-economic environment. Vera’s intentions, however, are irrelevant in a court of law. It is noteworthy that Vera's son Sid strongly represents the anti-abortion position and that the representatives of law and authority - doctors and nurses, the police, and the judge - are not presented as villains but rather as decent people who are simply doing their jobs properly in the context of 1950's legal and social mores.


As of 9 April 2006, Vera Drake had grossed $12,941,817 at the box office worldwide, including over $3.7 million in the U.S.

The film has attracted some criticism from those who worked in midwifery during the 1950s. The chief concern is the method of abortion used by Vera Drake in the film. This involves using a Higginson bulb syringe filled with a solution of warm, soapy water and disinfectant, which is inserted into the woman's uterus. This method is claimed by Jennifer Worth, a nurse and midwife in the 1950s and 1960s, to be invariably fatal. She calls the film itself "dangerous", as it could be shown in countries where abortion is illegal and the method depicted copied by desperate women. In fact, according to a study of abortions in 1930s Camberwellmarker, a working-class area of London not far from the setting for the film, the Higginson's syringe was the most commonly employed method, accounting for 336 out of 1000 hospital admissions resulting from illegal abortions. Of these 336 hospitalizations, only 10 women subsequently died.

Awards and nominations

See also


  1. [1]
  2. Watson, Garry, The Cinema of Mike Leigh: A Sense of the Real, Wallflower Press, 2004, 207pp, ISBN 190476410X
  3. Ebert, Roger Vera Drake, Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2007, Andrews McMeel, 2006, 990pp, p745
  4. (statistics on Vera Drake)

Further reading

Fuller, Graham, Mike Leigh On Mike Leigh, Faber, 2008, 438pp, ISBN 9780571204694

External links

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