Making a decidedly pro-choice movie when the right to abortion is under attack might seem like a good idea to some, but Vera Drake comes off as didactic and outdated. It's almost as if a propaganda film made by Planned Parenthood had resurfaced after decades in storage. Timely, it's not.
The film starts off well enough, as it provides an intimate look into the working-class family life of the title character (Imelda Staunton), a relentlessly cheery fifty-something who works as a house cleaner for various rich folks, and thinks that all problems can be solved by a hot cup of tea. But about 45 minutes into the picture, it becomes obvious that Vera has an illegal sideline: She provides abortions for proletarian types like herself, and does it not for the money, but out of a basic sense of fairness, a need to help the helpless.
All well and good. This quotidian view of things is engrossing, but Leigh shows his heavy-handed strategy way too early, by contrasting Vera's work in shabby rooms using primitive equipment with an abortion procured by rich girl Susan (Sally Hawkins), whose procedure is performed by a real doctor in a private clinic. That the rich always had it better off in the pre-choice era is not exactly a startling revelation, and Leigh's decision to drop Susan from the picture after she's ended her pregnancy seems abrupt and foreshadows the polemics to come.
The second hour of Vera Drake is all downhill. After one of Vera's patients nearly dies, the woman's mother, who had known Drake years ago, turns the abortionist in to the police. From here on in, the film settles into an endless series of interrogations, court hearings and family squabbles. Worst of all, the central character becomes almost catatonic, a weepy figure who seems totally overcome by the fear of prison and the shame of exposure. Because Vera is so lacking in backbone, and because Leigh barely allows her to explain herself, you end up wanting to slap her. To say Vera doesn't garner much sympathy is to understate how truly annoying she becomes while wallowing in self-pity.
Even worse, Leigh obviously missed the chance to make a much more compelling film. Lily (the marvelous Ruth Sheen), the woman who finds Vera's "patients," is a tart-tongued black marketer and fixer who takes money for her services, but never tells Drake. She's no one's fool, and you just wish Leigh had followed her through the arrest-and-trial process. Lily would definitely have her day in court, which is more than you can say for the lachrymose Vera.