Stunning English drama turns controversy into crushing emotion
Directed by Mike Leigh
Cast: Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis
Vera Drake, the new film from noted British director Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy, Secrets & Lies), is not the most cheerful film of the year. But it is the first to scream “Oscar me!” in a loud, clear and rather difficult to dismiss voice.
The titular Vera Drake (British stage and screen star Imelda Staunton) is the very model of a selfless English housewife. Bustling around her poor, postwar housing block, Vera drops in on ailing neighbors, cleans up after her aged mother, invites lonely bachelors to dinner and looks after her working-class brood with cheerful efficiency.
But this is only the surface. In due time, we learn that Vera is a secret abortionist, “helping out” poor, impregnated gals who cannot afford to have children. (Abortion was not made legal in England until some two decades later.) This secret life of Vera's, hidden even from her own husband, is the linchpin around which the entire story spins. But it is a long time before that comes to the forefront.
For the most part, Leigh seems content to provide a humble portrait of 1950 London, still recovering from the devastating effects of World War II. Men are finally able to talk about the horrors they faced on the battlefield, but are now caught between the economic hardships of yesteryear and the consumer realities of today. Vera's husband (a stalwart Phil Davis) tries to keep his family afloat by working at his brother's garage. His slightly more solvent brother, meanwhile, worries about keeping his young wife happy with the latest conveniences (washing machines, televisions sets). Vera's happy-go-lucky son Sid (Daniel Mays) barters nylons on the black market with his other free-spending club-going pals. Vera's daughter Ethel (the painfully shy Alex Kelly), on the other hand, finds her mother gently nudging her toward a marital union with equally reserved neighbor George (Richard Graham). Amid all these gritty yet homey portraits are the growing storm clouds of Vera's other profession.
Eventually, the cat is let out of the bag and Vera is arrested by the authorities. Amazingly, Leigh's film comes down neither for nor against the issue of abortion. There are justifiable arguments saying Vera is performing a valuable service to London's underprivileged. There are equal arguments voiced that Vera's work is a ticking time bomb. What is unequivocal, however, is Vera's utter sincerity. When the police inform Vera that one of her “patients” nearly died, the devastation on her face is utter.
The meat of Leigh's simple, linear tale comes down to a question of justice. At some point, we stop worrying about the crime, and start worrying about the “criminal.” Will any justice be served by sending this genial old lady to jail? Much credit goes to Staunton, who delivers a sympathetic and ultimately crushing emotional performance. Credit also goes to Leigh, who--as writer and director--has expertly crafted a fictional tale that looks and feels like a true-life biography.
One could argue that Vera is too saintly and naïve to function in the real world, but Leigh and his actors have created such a truthful world on screen, that the argument is a difficult one to broach. Though Vera is the central character, each and every performer is given a living, breathing person to inhabit for the duration of the film. Though the subject matter may be a bit dark for some audience members, the strength of the performances is undeniable. Chalk this import up as the first Oscar contender of the season.