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Vera Drake

Director: Mike Leigh

U.K.-France| 2004. Colour. 125 min.


Mike Leigh¹s latest should confirm his status as Britain¹s greatest living filmmaker. A large claim, perhaps, but having already picked up major honours at the Venice Film Festival and in the British Independent Films Awards, Vera Drake looks set both to please Leigh¹s many existing admirers and to win over many of those who¹ve hitherto been sceptical.
The film is set in London in the 1950s, when the Second World War still resonated in people¹s memories, and the continuing privations of the post-war period created a black market for commodities of all kinds. It¹s against this background that Vera Drake goes on her way, bustling cheerily around, cleaning for the upper classes, looking after her family, friends and neighbours‹and helping young women to end unwanted pregnancies. Her lifestyle is modest but happy‹until, that is, one of the girls she has helped is rushed to hospital, and the police begin to close in.
Imelda Staunton has already won awards for her marvellous lead performance, and if there¹s any justice will win a good many more. The crumbling of Vera¹s chirpy indomitability, when the day arrives that she has always half-feared, is truly tragic to behold, and Staunton makes her descent into tearful, anguished semi-articulacy painfully moving. Such honest emotion (hers and ours) reinforces the impossibility of judging Vera on clear-cut moral terms; there is a lovely shot of her passing in front of her dressing-table mirror at the moment of truth, so that we briefly see four Veras‹the real one and three reflections‹and are subtly reminded that there are at least that many ways of seeing her and responding to what she has done.
There are too many excellent supporting performances to list them all, but special mention should be made of Phil Davis as Vera¹s decent, stoic husband, the meticulous Peter Wight as the investigating inspector, and Daniel Mays, making good use here, as he did in Leigh¹s last film All or Nothing, of his rather babyish face and wide, expressive eyes. Best of all, perhaps, is Eddie Marsan, who deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor BIFA for his role as family friend Reg, a shy, awkward loner who ironically emerges as the film¹s most endearing character.
Leigh anchors the narrative and the characters with a tremendous underlying anger. It¹s made very clear that abortions are available more or less on demand for the wealthy. The procedure, to be sure, is coldly commercial, male-dominated and calculatedly duplicitous, but it exists all the same. The less well-off have no such recourse and without Vera and her kind‹even given all the health risks that such illicit practices entail‹would have nowhere to turn.
Not surprisingly, the subject matter dictates a less overtly comic style than we have come to expect from Leigh (even in his more sombre films, such as Bleak Moments and All or Nothing, jokes and the ability to share laughter have always seemed crucial to the characters). Yet his ability to operate simultaneously as humanist and humorist remains very much in evidence, and on several occasions he provokes our laughter only to turn the moment on a sixpence. Take, for example, Vera¹s propensity for putting the kettle on and making cups of tea for everyone she meets. On one level it¹s a comical, knowing manipulation of a cliche of British kitchen sink drama. Yet the smile is inclined to freeze on our faces when we see her visit one of her girls for the first time, and realise that the kettle is boiling this time for a very different reason.

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