|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 29 March 2005|
“Vera Drake” was nominated for 2004 Academy Awards for Best Actress (Imelda Staunton), Best Director (Mike Leigh) and Best Original Screenplay (Leigh again). It’s easy to understand why – a quiet movie about quiet people who rarely so much as raise their voices, it builds to emotional hurricane force.
We are in 1950 London, where Vera Drake (Staunton) lives with her husband Stan (Philip Davis) and their two grown children, Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly). They’re working class but content, with a good marriage and jobs that pay the bills. Vera works as a maid/cleaning lady for women who barely knows she’s alive. Once in awhile, Vera meets up with an acquaintance (“friend” would be pushing it) who directs Vera to women in need of “help.” The women, mostly young and very apprehensive, find Vera’s maternal manner reassuring as she induces miscarriage. Vera takes no money for her services and genuinely believes she’s performing a service. Her gentle, comforting approach is certainly a good deal better than the doctor’s icy interrogation that greets a young woman seeking a “termination” after a date-rape incident. Inevitably, though, something goes wrong, the police become involved and Vera’s family finds out.
Director/writer Mike Leigh is famous for rehearsing his actors for months in improvisatory situations, working out all of the details of the characters with them so when it comes time to actually film, the people are fully inhabited, speaking and behaving like real human beings. What winds up being so cumulatively gripping about “Vera Drake” is that everything in it looks and sounds and feels like things that actually are part of life. Give or take the accents and the era, the actions and reactions of all of the people in the story seem exactly like what real people would do in the same circumstances – we never find ourselves wondering, “Why would she do that?”
Staunton is remarkable as the unprepossessing, warm Vera, whose pain at upsetting her family is so devastating that just observing it as an audience member is fairly overwhelming. Staunton doesn’t hold anything back – as she sits there, folded in on herself, we are looking at a definition of helpless desperation. Davis is excellent as her staunch husband, who shows us a vast spectrum of emotions while still saying all the right things and mostly keeping his cool.
“Vera Drake” is definitely pro-choice, but it is not a polemic in any conventional sense – Vera doesn’t see abortion as a political issue (or herself as a political person, for that matter), and wouldn’t know how to make a speech if her life depended on it. The film simply shows us a series of events (including one woman endangered by an induced miscarriage gone wrong) and invites us to put our own interpretation on them.
The “Vera Drake” DVD comes with a DTS soundtrack option, which is a little odd on a film this quiet, though it does a beautiful job throughout. In Chapter 8, the rears provide just enough space to give us the sense that we’re in a jazz dance hall with the characters while a combo plays on stage. In Chapter 13, wordless choral music swells from everywhere in the sound system, increasing the sense of gentle melancholy. Leigh makes gorgeous use of light throughout, subtly creating a nostalgic look without dimming the colors, and the transfer maintains the visual nuances created by the director.
Given Leigh’s intricate preparation style, it’s a shame there are literally no extras (apart from subtitles) on the disc. However, “Vera Drake” stands on its own as a film worth seeing and having.