Film reviews

Vera Drake, Dir; Mike Leigh Cert; 12A

From the director of Secrets & Lies and All or Nothing comes another homegrown work of hope and love but also of underlying truths and despair. Set in the early 1950s, Vera Drake (a flawless role by Imelda Staunton) is a plucky, benevolent and useful wife and mother of two living in a post war London. She hums to herself as she dusts a wealthy woman’s house, gives kind words to everyone she meets and returns home to her crowded flat to cook and clean for her husband, son and daughter. She supports and cares for them, brewing tea with a smile on her face and fluffs their pillows without a shred of sorrow even while her mother (Sandra Voe) is rigorously incapacitated and bedridden. She also occasionally performs illegal abortions to would be mothers who, for whatever their reasons are, don’t want their child.

The film strictly and rightly steers away from a moral, religious or political debate about the implications of the actions of the main character. I shall do the same for this evaluation. It turns more towards a dissection of family love. Vera’s husband Stan (Phil Davies), an auto repairman who works with his brother, treasures Vera’s kindness and ability to open the light amidst the darkness. Their son Sid (Daniel Mays) is a tailor who likes to playfully banter and socialise with his family and friends. Their daugher Ethel (Alex Kelly) is a soft and timid introvert. In a rather charming subplot, Vera invites an equally inhibited bachelor named Reg (Eddie Marson) round for tea and essentially hooks him up with Ethel – a rather reserved but very sweet romance ensues.

The tragedy lies in the fact that Vera’s secret occupation is kept hidden from her family until one day she performs an abortion that almost kills the mother. The tightly knit family starts to unravel when, at their height of joy and happiness (an engagement and baby announcement party) the police knock on the door. The Inspector (Peter Wight) is a lawful man, physically and unsympathetically imposing and adhering to the strictness of the rules until he gives Vera a speck of leeway when realising that her family does not know about her secret and also when coming upon the fact that her intentions were good natured and non-profiteering, unlike Lily (Ruth Sheen) who would slip the names and addresses of “young girls who need help” to Vera but wouldn’t tell her that she is paid for being an errand girl.

It is a film about the characters and their emotions, rather than their motives and actions. Mike Leigh sticks strictly to the middle of the road, being neither pro or anti abortion leaving those decisions for the audience to make. After Vera has been put on bail and must wait a few weeks before going back to court there are several scenes of long and awkward silences of the family sitting and thinking with wide eyes as Vera sits with a long face in the middle. In one scene, on Christmas day, a box of chocolates is passed around as an effort to break away from the sadness. It silently moves around the room, mostly being ignored until it reaches Reg. He proclaims it is “the best Christmas I’ve had in a long time”, realising that all Vera needs is some warmth and acknowledgement and not a speech on morality. Sid gives exactly that to her though, blurting out a sermon about “little babies” in a scene of stark truth and discomfort right before telling her that he loves her. In these scenes, not many people will be able to relate to the situation or characters but they will feel included as if they are right there as the camera and script never moves away from the disheartening scenes. This may not be a comfortable or entertaining film but it is brilliant nonetheless because of the way it unravels truth. It does what it is supposed to do phenomenally. The Drakes rise to the occasion with shock, disbelief, anger and depression but all these are tied together with love and loyalty.

In a film driven by characters, it is important that the actors give good performances. Thankfully, Leigh has given us a collection of faultless performances that almost demean the term ‘performance’. Imelda Staunton’s role is very important as the film rests on its shoulders but it manages to be the best thing about it in a film full of strengths. It balances between an extremely solid and believable performance of a small, fragile and heartbroken woman. Mike Leigh’s script and direction while unremorseful and painful is superlative as it is deeply emotional without being preachy and truthful without turning towards a lesson between right and wrong, sensationalising or exploiting. Leigh has also crafted a believable setting of a dark and gritty 1950s England with good production values which is ironic as the film was almost non-existent when the Lottery funded budget almost fell through. Thankfully, that never happened.

I hope that awards ceremonies can see beyond the controversy of the subject to give this everything it deserves. Heart-rendingly brilliant. 10/10


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