Vera Drake

on October 08, 2004 by Sheri Linden
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Mike Leigh turns his keen eye for British class divisions on this portrait of a blue-collar woman and her family in 1950 London. With its potent fusion of kitchen sink realism and artful visual composition, "Vera Drake" delves into no less controversial a matter than abortion, removing all hyperbole and religious hysteria from the discussion. Instead, the writer-director and his talented cast deliver a devastating social message, rooted in economic realities and full of quiet but acute character observation.

As the title character, a woman of limited means and unshakable optimism, Imelda Staunton is the embodiment of resilience and compassion. Between house-cleaning jobs, Vera visits her ailing mother and sick neighbors. Whether polishing the brass in a well-appointed living room or putting on "a fresh pot"--hot tea being her anchor--Vera hums a tune, her face bright with hope. Late in the story it becomes clear that she harbors deep layers of buried pain. But the film posits that, in postwar England, most people do. The war looms large in conversation: When Vera's loving, steadfast husband, Stan (Phil Davis), chats with sad-sack neighbor Reg (Eddie Marsan), they trade names of battles fought, mates lost.

The drama builds at a slow, deliberate pace, free of period gloss. Leigh and his cast (the director is famous for his collaborative approach to developing scripts) establish Vera's decency before revealing that her neighborhood rounds include visits to women "when they can't manage": Using carbolic soap, disinfectant and a syringe, she performs bedroom abortions. When a young girl Vera has "helped out" ends up in the hospital, the police pursue Vera, much to her family's stunned disbelief. The film is curiously vague about the girl's medical complications, no small detail given its importance to the story. But without creating outright villains, Leigh conveys the horror and the hypocrisy of the criminal proceedings. A subplot makes clear that, for a hefty fee, doctors provide safe, discreet abortions for the well-to-do.

Throughout, Leigh orchestrates the postwar push-pull between old and new, resignation and hope. Vera's daughter, Ethel (Alex Kelly), stooped and gentle, is a painfully shy factory worker; her younger brother, Sid (Daniel Mays), is forward-looking and gregarious. Green predominates in the meticulous production design--from Vera's unfashionable cloth coat to her brother-in-law's stylish car. It's the color of the chill damp that pervades this powerful film. Starring Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis, Peter Wight, Adrian Scarborough, Heather Craney, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Ruth Sheen, Helen Coker, Allan Corduner, Fenella Woolgar and Jim Broadbent. Directed and written by Mike Leigh. Produced by Alain Sarde and Simon Channing Williams. A Fine Line release. Drama. Rated R for depiction of strong thematic material. Running time: 124 min

Tags: class, period piece, London, family, abortion, religion, controversy, Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis, Peter Wight, Adrian Scarborough, Heather Craney, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Ruth Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Mike Leigh
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