Vera Drake

From Wikipedia the free encyclopedia

Vera Drake
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMike Leigh
Written byMike Leigh
Produced bySimon Channing Williams
CinematographyDick Pope
Edited byJim Clark
Music byAndrew Dickson
Distributed byMomentum Pictures[1]
Release date
  • 6 September 2004 (2004-09-06) (Venice)
Running time
125 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$11 million
Box office$13.3 million[2]

Vera Drake is a 2004 British period drama film written and directed by Mike Leigh and starring Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis, Daniel Mays and Eddie Marsan. It tells the story of a working-class woman in London in 1950 who performs illegal abortions. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and it was nominated for three Academy Awards and won three BAFTAs.



Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is devoted to her family, looking after her husband and children, her elderly mother, and a sick neighbour. Her shy daughter, Ethel (Alex Kelly), works in a lightbulb 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 are poor, their strong family bonds hold them together. During her working day as a house cleaner, Vera performs constant small acts of kindness for the many people she encounters.

She is a kindly person who is eager to help others. Unknown to her family, she also works secretly, providing abortions for young women. She receives no money for providing this service because she believes that her help is an act of charity to women in trouble. However, her partner Lily (Ruth Sheen), who also carries on a black-market trade in scarce postwar foodstuffs, charges two guineas (two pounds and two shillings: equivalent to £87 in 2023) for arranging the abortions, without Vera's knowledge.

The film also contains a subplot about an upper-class young woman, Susan (Sally Hawkins), the daughter of one of Vera's employers. Susan is raped by a suitor, becomes pregnant, and asks a friend to put her in contact with a doctor, through whom she can obtain an abortion. The doctor refers her to a psychiatrist, who prompts her to answer questions in a certain way, so that he can legally recommend an abortion on therapeutic psychiatric grounds: that she has a family history of mental illness and that she may commit suicide if not allowed to terminate the pregnancy. The abortion costs her a hundred guineas.

After one of her patients nearly dies, Vera is arrested by the police and taken into custody for questioning. She is held overnight and appears before a magistrate the next morning. Sid is shocked by his mother's secret activities and tells his father that he does not think that he can forgive her. However, in a later conversation with Vera, he expresses fear for what could happen to her in prison, before finally telling Vera that he loves her.

Vera is bailed to appear at the Old Bailey. None of Vera's employers will give her a character reference. Her solicitor thinks she will receive the minimum sentence of 18 months in jail; the judge sentences her to two-and-a-half years' imprisonment "as a deterrent to others." This affects all the people who previously depended on Vera's kindness.

While in prison, Vera meets others who have been convicted of performing illegal abortions. They discuss their sentences, explaining that it's not their first time in prison for performing illegal abortions, and that she'll probably only serve half her sentence. Vera tearfully leaves to go to her cell.

Main cast




In Vera Drake, Leigh incorporated elements of his own childhood. He grew up in north Salford, Lancashire, 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."[3]



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.[4]

Leigh often uses improvisation 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 addition to these methods utilised by Mike Leigh, the director is also admired for his preference of English actors to Hollywood stars. This has led to criticism of Leigh as being a patroniser of the working class.[5] However, using Dickens in his defence, he rebuts these accusations outright proclaiming that the last thing he seeks in his actors is a stereotype.[5] This stereotype was fiercely criticised in the film, Vera Drake:

These abiding quibbles aside, Vera Drake is a compelling and complex film. Though much has been made of the controversial subject matter—back street abortion—its main theme is the buried family secret, the ticking time bomb that can lurk underneath even the most stable marriage. Much of the film's cumulative power lies in its delineation of a rock solid family suddenly rocked to the core by a revelation that is literally beyond their comprehension: the fact that their beloved, and loving, mother is an abortionist. Why, I ask Leigh, does she keep her secret for so long?[5]

Leigh wanted to shoot in 35mm but, after being denied by the producers, the film was shot on 16mm film stock.[6][7]



Box office


As of 9 April 2006, Vera Drake had grossed $12,941,817 at the box office worldwide, including over $3.7 million in the US.[2]

Critical response


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, which is a type of enema syringe, to introduce a warm, dilute solution of carbolic soap and an unspecified liquid disinfectant into the woman's uterus. This method is claimed by Jennifer Worth, a nurse and midwife in the 1950s and 1960s and author of the book Call the Midwife, to be invariably fatal. She called the film itself "dangerous", as it could be shown in countries where abortion is illegal and the method depicted copied by desperate women.[8] In reply Leigh told interviewer Amy Raphael that Worth's criticism overlooked several factors, such as how the film undoubtedly highlights the risk of infection by exploring such misadventure as a means to ultimately curtail Drake's work and the fact that it was based on many testimonies from women who once had such abortions, thereby proving that the procedure did not almost always result in death.[9][page needed]

The website Metacritic, which compiles and averages reviews from leading film critics, gave it a score of 83 out of 100 from 40 reviews.[10] Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 93% based on 161 reviews, with a rating average of 7.9/10. The site's consensus is that "with a piercingly powerful performance by Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake brings teeming humanity to the controversial subject of abortion."[11]

Home media


Vera Drake was released on DVD on March 29, 2005.[12]

Awards and nominations


See also



  1. ^ "Search for releases". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved 28 September 2017.
  2. ^ a b "Vera Drake". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 7 April 2021.
  3. ^ Watson, Garry (2004). Watson, Garry. The Cinema of Mike Leigh: A Sense of the Real, Wallflower Press, 2004, 207pp, ISBN 1-904764-10-X. Wallflower Press. ISBN 9781904764106. Retrieved 1 January 2010.
  4. ^ Ebert, Roger (November 2006). Ebert, Roger. Vera Drake, Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2007, Andrews McMeel, 2006, 990pp, p745. Andrews McMeel. ISBN 9780740761577. Retrieved 1 January 2010.
  5. ^ a b c O'Hagan, Sean (5 December 2004). "'I'm allowed to do what I want - that amazes me'". The Observer. Retrieved 10 February 2014 – via
  6. ^ "Mike Leigh career retrospective interview". BFI. Retrieved 17 March 2022.
  7. ^ Prince, Ron. "Shooting On Film | The Changing Face Of Cinematography: Special Report". British Cinematographer. Retrieved 17 March 2022.
  8. ^ Worth, Jennifer (6 January 2005). "A deadly trade". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 January 2022.
  9. ^ Leigh, Mike; Raphael, Amy (2021). Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh. Faber & Faber. ISBN 9780571353828.
  10. ^ "Vera Drake Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved 28 September 2017.
  11. ^ "Vera Drake". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 16 November 2023.
  12. ^ Leigh, Mike (29 March 2005), Vera Drake, retrieved 3 July 2022