Vera Drake
First screened and reviewed in November 2004
Director: Mike Leigh. Cast: Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Eddie Marsan, Adrian Scarborough, Heather Craney, Sally Hawkins, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Peter Wight, Martin Savage, Helen Coker, Lesley Sharp, Liz White, Sandra Voe, Sam Troughton, Fenella Woolgar, Allan Corduner, Jim Broadbent, Tilly Vosburgh, Vinette Robinson, Angela Curran, Jane Wood. Screenplay: Mike Leigh.

Twitter Capsule: Terrific showcase for Staunton but even by Leigh standards the whole ensemble is exceptional. Ace light and sets, too.

VOR:   Leigh's most explicitly political film. Also among the most willing to preserve key mysteries even as actors, script incisively divulge.

Photo © 2004 UK Film Council/Les Films Alain Sarde,
© 2004 Fine Line Features
In 1934, the British/Creole writer Jean Rhys published her novel Voyage in the Dark, in which a second- or third-tier stage actress named Anna Morgan is impregnated by one of her temporary suitors and eventually opts to abort her child. The climactic abortion itself is indicated through a dense alternation of surreal dream-imagery and grim but dispassionate physical details of the room where Anna lies prostrate and bleeding. All but missing in this final chapter is Anna's voice, or much trace of what we might call a personality. Given Rhys' typical (and controversial) tendency to flatten the psychological contours of her characters, such that even her protagonists sometimes feel like bystanders in their own lives, we can't simply infer that the trauma of the abortion has effaced Anna's personality. If anything, the most troubling implication of Voyage in the Dark is that Anna's abortion, an event in which she is once again depicted as both agent and passive object, is basically of a piece with the rest of her nomadic, largely defenseless, and unsettlingly indifferent existence.

Mike Leigh's current film Vera Drake tells the story of a woman who performs abortions rather than one who undergoes one, although Vera ultimately devolves into almost as much of a shell as Anna Morgan does. A victim not of bodily trauma but of legal intolerance (and, perhaps, of extended self-delusion about her own behavior), Vera ends the film shuffling stiffly and nearly anonymously in a place she never imagined life could take her. Given the almost wholly opposed temperaments and praxes of Rhys and Leigh, however, Vera's internal annihilation at the end of Vera Drake registers very differently than does Anna's final plight, even as their stories topically recall each other. Leigh's style—indeed, his whole career—is founded on the rich detailing of place, performance, and implied psychology. Due both to his famous strategies for nurturing and rehearsing his actors and to the carefully modulated realism of sound, design, and lighting in his films, Leigh fosters a full-scale idiomatic immersion within each of his movies. His approach is grounded in empathy, specificity, and an almost voluptuous attention to human dimensionality, even as he is intrigued by some of the same social castes and milieus that attract much dryer attention from Rhys. Because we are provided so much layered information about Vera's mind and milieu at the outset, Leigh and his collaborators enable us to feel the emotional scope of the woman's predicament when her life ultimately collapses. We perceive the sudden evaporation of everything vital in her face, her family, and her daily routine.

One of the few grudging things that might be said about Vera Drake, though it's a remarkable and shrewd piece of filmmaking, is that this built-in contrast of a sunny before and a shattered after is a virtual guarantee of audience sympathy. Consequently, it's a slightly rote device for structuring a story. Unlike the sprawling group narratives of Secrets & Lies or Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake focuses more closely not just on a single character but, for the most part, on a single dramatic arc, which gives the lead actors some rather obvious parameters for their nonetheless impressive performances. For both his casts and his audience, the real gift of Leigh's working method is its commitment to exploration. His actors and actresses, once hired, are freed to sculpt their alter egos and determine the grain and scope of the story. This freedom is fully palpable to viewers of the completed films, which breathe with unmistakable and synchronized vitality. The capacious, multi-strand plot rogressions of his best movies—and even of some second-level work like Life Is Sweet or All or Nothing—thus seem like fitting mirrors of the process by which the films came into being.

By contrast, Vera Drake feels programmed from the outset for a certain destination; though the actors dig just as deeply as they usually do for Leigh, the material doesn't always allow them to surprise us. Furthermore, given Leigh's decision to pivot the action around the legal and penal interventions into Vera's life, the boundaries of the film feel a bit constrictive, unprepared to say much about the implications of Vera's fate. She emerges as a classically tragic figure, a woman undone both by personal miscalculations and by inflexible social dogma, but you could say the same of many women in many stories. With the certitude of a Lars von Trier heroine, though with infinitely less flamboyance and formal daring, Vera heads intractably into her own doomed destiny. There is nothing we can do to save her, and at a certain point nothing that an actress can do, even one as resourceful as Imelda Staunton, to illuminate her character's experience. She came, she saw, she acted, she was conquered. This arc makes for Leigh's angriest movie since Naked, and the ineluctable forward movement of Vera Drake is an achievement in itself (particularly for editor Jim Clark, a new addition to Leigh's crew). Still, I daresay the film raises more questions than it is really set to explore, and the revelations of character feel slightly less idiosyncratic than in Leigh's other movies, even when, as in the unpredictably structured Topsy-Turvy, we know the outcome in advance.

All of that said, this is not a film to take lightly, nor is it one to underrate just because it isn't everything it could be—or rather, it isn't everything that other Leigh films have been. If anything, I am leading with caveats because elsewhere the praise has been so unstinting—and I can understand fully why it has been. From the opening frames, the cinematography of Vera Drake has a severe, wintry pall that braces the film visually and makes the few exterior shots of London look unforgiving indeed. The Essex apartment complex where Vera lives, a chipper nursemaid to her family and her neighbors, offers moderate shelter from the permanent chill outdoors, but the lives of sickness, sadness, and decay unfolding in these tiny flats do nothing to warm the film. The units in Essex Building are functional and numbered like jail cells, an analogy that comes to mean something. Meanwhile, the tony townhouses and deluxe apartments where Vera works as a maid are just as glacial in their own way, not just in their porcelain décor but in the alienated relationships among the family members who inhabit them. In a clever instance of camera movement, we pan away from Vera, scrubbing the floor of a well-to-do home, and are surprised to discover that she isn't alone despite the absolute silence that has enveloped her. Eventually Mrs. Wells (Lesley Manville), for whom Vera at this moment is working, makes pinched non-conversation with her daughter Susan (Sally Hawkins). Susan will become a kind of antipodal figure to Vera in the story that follows—structurally a sort of Septimus Warren Smith to Vera's Clarissa Dalloway, though the class valences and personal destinies of the characters are reversed. The characters fleetingly and wordlessly cross paths, effectively illustrating a class-based double standard in their divergent trajectories. The oblique integration of Susan's subplot into Vera's story is another example of the film's subtly creative editing rhythms, which inspire thoughtfulness about the many ways each narrative refracts the other without overdetermining our conceptions of how they relate.

For the most part, however, Vera Drake is emphatically rooted in the Drake family: Vera, husband Stan (Phil Davis), gregarious son Sid (Daniel Mays), and painfully introverted daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly). Vera ambles around energetically from job to job, bustling up and down stairways and even checking in on neighbors who don't much seem to want checking in on, but her cheerful mien brightens even more when the four Drakes are collected around the dinner table. They are the rare family in a Leigh film who seem to get along joyously, warmly inviting relatives and even virtual strangers into their circle of open conversation and doting care. Stan's brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough), also his employer, is a frequent table guest, though Frank's wife Joyce (Heather Craney) is prissily reluctant to partake in the general mood. (Craney's shrill and over-scripted performance, offering a crasser version of the carping and upwardly mobile sister-in-law from Secrets & Lies, is one of the few dull spots in the ensemble.) More recently and unexpectedly, Vera has welcomed a local recluse called Reg (Eddie Marsan) to the Drake apartment. She may or may not have in mind to introduce the widowed Reg to her daughter Ethel, and it's a gentle indicator that Vera may not always be as pure of motive as she seems. She may not even recognize the degree of self-interest in her essentially humanitarian gestures.

The central division in Vera Drake inheres before and after Vera's arrest for her most secret neighborly offices, administering a home remedy to expectant woman who want to abort their pregnancies. The film rejects any moral inquiry into abortion in favor of a purely judicial consideration. That is, it opposes Vera's blithely undercover career as an abortionist, which is but one eddy in the crossing currents of her life, to the domestic catastrophe of her discovery by the police, which repositions her as a criminal and nothing else. Though I signaled earlier that the tragic arc of Vera Drake feels perhaps too implacable, the film deserves immense credit for so fully characterizing Vera, the Drakes, their era, and their environment that we feel how perverse it is for the courts to view Vera so narrowly, and indeed to hold such parsimonious views of right and wrong. The abortion scenes themselves are both empathetically attuned to these women's experiences—the patient's abrupt gasps as Vera inserts her rubber syringe are a painful motif—and tonally representative of the forced and guarded forms of intimacy that pervade throughout the movie, which constantly shows us how much people need each other and how awkward their bonds can be. Submerged rivalries, personal and professional, underlie the brotherly camaraderie between Frank and Stan. Vera's friendship with Lily (Ruth Sheen), who procures and profits from Vera's criminal appointments, is more mercenary and impersonal than Vera seems to realize. Susan Lynch is as restive with her friend at a lunch-date as she is with her haughty mother. The bond between Reg and Ethel, who eventually do coalesce as a romantic couple, seems all but founded on their having nothing to say to each other.

However surreptitious and well-intentioned, Vera's meetings with her pregnant clients are just as nervous and fraught as the other relations in the film. Reassuring though she is, Vera more than once encounters a limit to her own sympathies that she just can't surpass. She is on pins and needles throughout her appointment with a distraught Haitian woman, and she barely conceals her disdain for a later client whose baby was conceived out of wedlock with a married man. The coldness and cruelty of doctors, judges, and lawyers is hardly a surprise, but the palpable, barely veiled sympathy of the police who arrest and interrogate Vera sustains the film's uneasy balances between distrust and generosity, anonymity and compassion. The visuals reinforce these same syntheses, blending a quietly stylized reailsm (epitomized in Eve Stewart's scrupulous production design and Jacqueline Durran's painstakingly casual costumes) with bolder, expressionist elements atypical of Leigh (check out the sequence where Susan is coerced into sex with her boyfriend, or the shot when Vera exits a basement apartment that's ramparted against the outside world by a spiky iron gate).

Imelda Staunton's performance in the titular role might be the film's key effect. Her style of acting, though sobered and pared down from her burlesque contributions to Peter's Friends and Shakespeare in Love, is still not what you'd call delicate. Her utterly distinctive face makes Staunton's every expression a kind of stylized vessel for emotion. At times she radiates grins of elvish glee. Elsewhere her trapezoidal features express a pure state of grief. Her walk has a dogged purposefulness quite at odds with her fluty voice and her habit of singing while she works, but the actress reconciles these divergent character traits into a compelling and holistic performance. Leigh has never been shy of bold acting choices, and part of his unique skill as a director is in crafting ideal vehicles for such stagy talents as Brenda Blethyn, David Thewlis, Jane Horrocks, Jim Broadbent, and the late, great Katrin Cartlidge. Staunton rewards Leigh's attention beautifully, particularly in a pivotal, poignantly sustained close-up in which her face has to carry the whole movie from the equanimity of the first hour to the spiritual devastation of the second. Mind you, this is hardly a subtle moment. In fact, it's a perfectly pre-fabbed clip for awards shows, even though its use is more than justified within the film. Vera Drake, reflective of the social, legal, and thematic dichotomies within the picture, is itself split between tantalizing suggestions and unambiguous moments of emphasis, with mercifully few lapses into outright overstatement.

Leigh has filled his movie with so much apt detail and human understanding that I wish he'd broadened his canvas just a little, even though Vera Drake already clocks in at a healthy 123 minutes. Perhaps there is no way in a story like this for the concluding sequences to retain the emotional richness of those that open the picture. If the film's increasingly limited tones and its precipitous finish need a justification, we might say that Vera Drake is both intimate and aloof, just like Vera Drake herself. The film has integrity without feeling at all overproduced or caught up in its own nobility—an impressive avoidance, given a socially divisive subject that can so easily lead to sanctimonious postures on both sides.

Leigh's movie also, I should add, contains one of the year's triumphant supporting performances in Eddie Marsan's Reg, one of the most tender suitors in recent cinema, even if his courtship of the fragile Ethel is tacitly suggested to be an obedient return on various favors the Drakes have extended him. Watchful and sensitive without a speck of false ingratiation, toward the characters or toward the audience, Marsan's performance is serenely heartbreaking. He communicates a distilled form of human decency that is immensely moving, and the actor keeps the secrets of the character. Does he really love Ethel? Can he keep this family together? Will he stay? Vera Drake is soul-stirringly good, but it's occasionally a little overt in staging its themes and insights, so it helps the film enormously to have an actor on hand who withholds as beautifully as he communicates. Staunton may be the headliner here, but Marsan is the buried treasure. Grade: A–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Director: Mike Leigh
Best Actress: Imelda Staunton
Best Original Screenplay: Mike Leigh

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Imelda Staunton

Other Awards:
Venice Film Festival: Golden Lion (Best Picture); Best Actress (Staunton)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actress (Staunton)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actress (Staunton)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Staunton; tie)
European Film Awards: Best Actress (Staunton)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Director; Best Actress (Staunton); Best Costume Design (Jacqueline Durran)

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