Eye For Film >> Movies >> Vera Drake (2004) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Veteran film-maker Mike Leigh is famous for his interest in the private lives of ordinary people, the little people whom society so often ignores, whose daily concerns are invisible. With Vera Drake, he continues this practice, but simultaneously takes on something much bigger. It is to his great credit that this, his most ambitious film, never loses its vital personal quality. Despite the political challenges it presents, this is a humane and sensitive portrayal of a society at odds with itself.
It is 1950, in London. Vera Drake, played by redoubtable cinema, television and threatre actress Imelda Staunton (who won the Venice Film Festival's Best Actress award for this role), is the sort of woman on whom everybody depends. Working as a cleaner, with a part-time job in a factory, she devotes her spare time to community activity. She cares for the elderly, including her own bedridden mother; takes in and feeds people living on their own; and devotes herself to her husband and children. Although her life is undoubtedly a hard one, she remains stubbornly cheerful, raising the spirits of those around her. But there's something else that Vera does which is morally more dubious. Out of her desire to help anybody who might be in need, Vera has become a backstreet abortionist. Her own take on it is that she "helps young girls who're in trouble." The police's take is rather different.
In this skillfully crafted ensemble film, Leigh shows us a great deal of post-war London and the stresses it creates. Whilst young people flirt as always, and young men, including Vera's own son, casually persuade young women to sleep with them in exchange for silk stockings, the city is full of casualties. Women who have been raped, who have been abandoned by their men, or who already have more children than they can afford to feed are desperate for help. Legal abortions are available, but the cost makes them inaccessible to the poor.
In this context, one can see why Vera's work might seem necessary; but then Leigh presents us with the consequences, the hideous and often fatal infections which can result from insufficient medical knowledge and poorly sterilised equipment. He also addresses the conflicts between men and women which these situations create; and the ancient conflict between a male-dominated medical establishment and the traditional practices of women practising within the community. All of this is elegantly done, without any direct proselytising, whilst the story continues to focus directly on its characters. It is also skillfully balanced.
In the central role, Imelda Staunton moves between cheerful confidence and emotional breakdown with considerable skill, creating a solid and believable character who might attract sympathy even from those strongly at odds with her moral position. Phil Davis is superb as her husband Stan, struggling to be loyal and supportive despite his personal beliefs.
The rest of the cast are all solid, and what emerges is a moving portrait of a family holding itself together against tremendous pressures. The presence of poverty pervades the story; everyone is making little deals to get by. Enough cups of tea are consumed to make this the caffeine equivalent of Withnail and I. The period costuming, set dressing and dialogue are all spot on. This is a grim story, but full of human kindness, a brave attempt to bring human values back to the forefront of political debate. It is also a fine example of the film-maker's craft.Reviewed on: 03 Oct 2006
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