Vera Drake

October, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Mike Leigh

Starring:Imelda Staunton, Richard Graham, Eddie Marsan, Anna Keaveney, Alex Kelly, Daniel Mays, Phil Davis, and Sinead Matthews

English writer/director Mike Leigh's delightful take on Gilbert and Sullivan (Topsy Turvey) shouldn't lull infrequent American filmgoers into thinking this giant of British film-making tends to the cleverly frivolous; the bulk of his work (Secrets and Lies, Naked, etc) remains devoted to a furious attack on the injustices he sees in his country's stubborn adherence to a class structure which devalues and often destroys its decent, hard-working lower-class citizens. He's at it again in this riveting examination of early '50's sexual double standards in London's East End.

Vera Drake, (Imelda Stanton) a happily married cleaning woman and mother of two is an angel of mercy. She visits ill neighbors, cares for her invalid mother, has a smile and kind word for both stranger and friend…and on the odd late Friday afternoon, "helps out girls in trouble" by performing abortions on them, without question or pay. Kind and gentle with everyone, Vera sincerely believes she's performing a community service for those who cannot come up with either the money or the thinly disguised lies which upper class young women employ to obtain the procedure on a legally protected and medically safe basis. When one of her “patients” requires hospitalization as a result of Vera's ministrations, Vera's world implodes, and the film traces her destruction,  (and the devastation of her close-knit family) with a growing sense of fury at the hypocrisy of a society that smugly sanctions behavior among the well-heeled while criminally sanctioning the same activity when it comes equipped with a Cockney accent, manual labor and cheap clothes.

Leigh's strengths don't lie in cinematography. His camerawork is straight forward, primarily composed of static medium and long shots accompanied by close-ups that rely far more on the facial agilities of his actors than on his skill with the lens. But his dialogue--and its delivery by an outstanding cast--is gemlike; lucid, perfectly faceted, and laced with just the correct amount of slangy local accent. Conversations taped in a working class pub couldn't capture the natural speech patterns and casual intimacy of working class Brits more precisely. Vera's immediate family, her brother, sister-in-law and her daughter's suitor are given both the screen time and dialogue to establish each as an exquisitely drawn character while the policemen, barristers and society matrons Vera must deal with are deliberately underdeveloped personalities, the better to make Leigh's point about their distance from the real world. 

But this is Ms. Stauton's film and she makes the very best of it; her Vera, with cheery placidity and terror alternately flickering across a care worn-face, epitomizes the dignity and value of the hard working people Leigh so admires. Employing baggy dresses and a rolling gait, Stanon's Vera resembles an ambulatory sack of door-knobs, topped off with a beatific smile and the kind of guileless demeanor that make her vulnerable and luminous at one and the same time. Not yet fifty, the actress miraculously projects here a woman a decade or more older, and vividly creates the impression of a life devoted to the completion of exhausting work. Whether polishing brass fireplace tools for one of her wealthy clients or adjusting the pillows behind her bedridden mother's head, Stauton embodies the nobility of simple tasks well and cheerfully done. Humming incessantly and calling even strangers "dear" in her softly inflected voice, she creates as powerful a screen presence as any I've ever encountered. (A challenge to those who give live theatre pride of place over movies; this film's many close-ups, impossible to duplicate in a legitimate theater setting, stunningly refute the contention that the stage always provides the best medium for impactful drama.)  Ms. Stauton's work demands Oscar consideration.

If there is any weakness at all in Vera Drake, it lies in Leigh's overly impassioned views about the values inherent in his subjects; he consistently stacks the deck in his polemic favor, presenting Vera and her family as through-going innocents and her "betters" as uncaring, bureaucratic snobs. Vera thus becomes Mother Theresa with a mop, making her character's actions more morally altruistic, but less credible. Sincere she obviously is, but saintly as well? The director needn't have worked so hard to canonize Vera; when the daughter of one of her wealthy customers enters a hospital, (under a cloak of the feigned mental illness required to obtain a legally sanctioned abortion from a well-heeled physician) on the same day Vera provides her "help" to a frightened, penniless and abandoned young woman of the same age, Leigh has sufficiently made his point. 

Every Catholic Bishop clamoring this election year for a roll-back of Roe vs. Wade should be strapped into a theater seat and forced to watch this powerful film. It probably wouldn't change their minds, but it might well give them a new sense of the determination of their pro-choice opponents.

If there is a better movie in 2004 than this one, it hasn't come out yet.   

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