Dir/scr: Mike Leigh.2004. UK/France. 125mins.
Mike Leigh's latest tourde force takes the subject of illegal abortion in 1950 London and uses it toair issues of moral integrity, goodness and justice never more relevant than intoday's self-serving social and political climate.
In Vera Drake, Leighachieves a level of engagement and intensity of which few other film-makers arecapable and many will find it overwhelming, especially since the humour of SecretsAnd Lies and Life Is Sweet is absent here. Nevertheless, strongcritical response and the powerful subject matter will generate a swell ofpublicity which will work in its favour in attracting strong arthouse audienceturnout.
Fine Line Features, whichacquired North American rights to the film in April and is opening it on Oct10, will generate further mileage around awards time with likely nominationsfor lead actress Imelda Staunton who is unforgettable in the title role.
High profile exposure atVenice this week and the opening night slot at the London Film Festival on Oct20 will further help to establish the film's reputation as a must-see fordiscerning moviegoers. Why Cannes did not accept Vera into itscompetition section is even more of a mystery now that the film can be seen inits entirety.
As played by Staunton, Verais a hard-working, thoughtful working-class woman devoted to her husband Stan(Davis), their grown-up son Sid (Mays) and daughter Ethel (Kelly) and theupkeep of their small flat. She is a cleaner, Stan a mechanic at his brother Frank'sgarage, the gregarious Sid is an apprentice tailor and the painfully shy Ethelworks in a lightbulb factory. They are a genuinely happy family.
Vera is one of the world'sgood people. She visits a sick neighbour, invites another one round to dinner whenshe thinks he isn't eating properly. She cleans for the rich, and always keepsa smile on her face.
The fact that she also helpsworking-class women with unwanted pregnancies to abort is introduced casuallyinto her daily routine. Through an old childhood friend and black marketer Lily(Sheen), she learns of girls in trouble and induces miscarriages with the samematter-of-fact kindliness as she uses to put the kettle on for a cuppa. Shecharges nothing for her procedures, (although unknown to her Lily does).
Interpersed in these longpassages of exposition is the story of Susan (Hawkins), the well-to-do daughterof a family for whom Vera cleans. Raped on a date, Susan finds herself pregnantand seeks advice from a friend (Woolgar) who directs her to a private doctorwho in turn directs her to a discreet private clinic where she has an abortion.It wouldn't be a Mike Leigh film without a glimpse at how the other half lives!
Trouble starts for Vera whenone of her the girls whom she has helped is taken ill and nearly dies inhospital. The girl's mother (Sharp) gives the police Vera's name and so thewheels of so-called justice are set in motion: Vera is arrested in the middleof her daughter's engagement party as her family watches dumbfounded. Devastated,Vera begins her humiliating interrogation down at the police station and isforced to come up with a way to tell Stan of her secret life.
Staunton's bustling littleVera is a delicious creation of good cheer and good intentions, all cups of teaand no nonsense. Her collapse into confusion and dumb despair after the arrestis so painfully portrayed by the actress that even the anti-abortion lobby willfind it hard not to be unsettled.
Through the character,Staunton and Leigh manage to ask penetrating questions of the audience, and notmerely concerning the age-old debate about abortion. What is "the right thingto do" in life' And should a person follow her personal convictions in the faceof the unjust dictates of class and law'
The problem Leigh faces in themarketplace, as was evident with the response to All Or Nothing, is thathis uniquely immersive film-making process produces drama so involving,passionate and true-to-life that many would simply prefer to dismiss it as"depressing" than take the plunge into his characters' lives. Vera Drakewill have its fair share of naysayers, especially since the last half-hour ormore is unforgiving in its bleakness.
But that would be a puerilereaction to such a richly human portrait of a woman and her family. Thecharacterisation which Leigh and his actors work onto the screen is deep andnuanced and could act as a template for any film-maker wondering how to depictreal people, their inter-relationships and their dilemmas within the confinesof a two-hour story.
Prod cos: Thin Man Films, Les Films Alain Sarde in associationwith Inside Track, UK Film Council
UK dist: Momentum
Int'l sales: StudioCanal
Prods: Simon Channing-Williams,Alain Sarde
Cine: Dick Pope
Prod des: Eve Stewart
Ed: Jim Clark
Mus: Andrew Dickson
Main cast: Imelda Staunton, PhilDavis, Peter Wight, Adrian Scarborough, Heather Craney, Daniel Mays, AlexKelly, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Ruth Sheen, Helen Coker, Allan Corduner,Fenella Woolgar, Lesley Sharp, Jim Broadbent