Vera Drake (Dir: Mike Leigh, 2003)
It’s only the first week of the new year and here already is the year’s first must-see movie (with the exception of Scorsese’s opulent, Oscar-baiting The Aviator, which slipped out at the end of last year, and which, despite being a Scorsese picture, may not actually be ‘must-see’ at all). Mike Leigh’s picture comes fresh from the festival circuit, where it has won a number of awards, including the Golden Lion for best picture and the Best Actress award for Imelda Staunton at last year’s Venice Film Festival. It also provided the gala opening for the London film festival last November. It will no doubt win many more accolades in the coming months.
Leigh’s eponymous central character is a compulsive ‘do-gooder’, a woman with a heart of gold who helps infirm neighbours, invites people round to feed them ‘a proper meal’ and makes endless cups of tea for those in need of comfort. In secret, she is also a backstreet abortionist, a grisly role for which she accepts no remuneration and sincerely believes she is acting out of the goodness of her heart, performing a social duty for the needy and underprivileged who have found themselves in trouble.
The first half of the film is captivating largely because of Leigh’s extraordinary recreation of early 1950s London life. Despite a meagre budget, and a lack of feasible locations, Leigh has crafted a convincing world – where the colours are appropriately drab and muted, but where there is also considerable warmth and human sympathy. Leigh is often dismissed for working largely with ‘caricatures’, or extreme types, which he creates at first through highly unique improvisatory techniques before presenting his actors with a script. Whilst Vera may well be seen as a class stereotype, working officially as a cleaner in wealthy homes whilst sympathising with the needy and happy with her own somewhat limited stock, there is also an element of truth and compassion in Imelda Staunton’s outstanding performance. She is highly supportive and encouraging towards her family, and carries herself with a quiet dignity.
Leigh also develops a believable euphemistic language when constructing dramatic situations. Vera does not perform abortions, she ‘helps girls out’. The amiable, slightly simple Reg proposes to Vera’s daughter Ethel in an endearingly clumsy manner, at first asking her if she has ‘thought about moving out’. In fact, there is a surprising abundance of charm and humour in the first half of the film, which neatly counterbalances the inevitable grimness elsewhere, without really ever becoming uncomfortable. The scenes of the operations themselves, which Vera performs with a Higinson syringe, soapy water and disinfectant, whilst not graphically depicting the procedure, are edgy and unpleasant, and a couple of these procedures are savagely juxtaposed with Drake family members enjoying a picture show. It’s a neat trick, which Leigh pulls off with an admirable deftness of touch and control.
It is only when one of Vera’s patients becomes seriously ill and nearly dies that her crimes are brought to light and she becomes exposed. At the ‘operation’, the young girl’s mother recognises Vera from a launderette where they both used to work before the war. In a subtly devastating few seconds, her anonymity is lost and she becomes perilously vulnerable. Never one to miss the opportunity for a dramatic coup, Leigh times her arrest to coincide with a family party, where the engagement of Ethel and Reg, and the pregnancy (oh, the irony) of Stan’s sister-in-law are being celebrated.
It is here that Imelda Staunton crafts her extraordinary transformation from pillar of the community to humiliated, devastated wreck. Much has already been made of her brilliant performance, but what seems most significant to me is that she is allowed to further flourish through intelligent, sensitive direction. Much like Ken Loach, Leigh is often criticised for being too concerned with drama and script, and less concerned with the actual technicalities of film-making. Here, with considerable aplomb, he demonstrates these critical barbs to be entirely inaccurate. When the police first arrive for Vera, the camera moves from a short distance into extreme close-up, capturing Staunton’s face as it first quivers and then collapses, losing its essence and vitality in what seems like an agonisingly long take. Another staggering moment, which I feel certain will linger in my memory for some time, is when, after completing her statement for the police, Vera finally confesses to her husband Stan. Here, Dick Pope’s camera frames the two characters in exquisite close-up, as Vera whispers the terrible news into his ear, unable to repeat her confession aloud. Leigh also skilfully resists the temptation to turn the final reel of the film into a perfunctory courtroom drama, through elaborate editing that transmits the magnitude of Vera’s trial and sentence without dwelling too long on technicalities.
Given that Leigh obviously intends our sympathies to lie with Vera, some have criticised this film for taking a morally ambivalent stance on abortion. I would certainly agree that the film maintains an admirable detachment on issues of personal morality (and, perhaps strangely, religion is hardly even touched upon), but it does not seem to me to be a defence of backstreet abortions. The abortion scenes themselves are fraught with tension, and, frequently, with despair, as Vera is often confronted with the fact that her actions have not magically washed away her clients’ problems as she clearly would like. What Leigh seems to be arguing (although this film is by no means intended as polemic) is that there was an underlying hypocrisy in 1950s Britain, whereby the wealthy could afford to pay for quietly sanctioned abortions in comfortable environments, whereas the working classes were left to fend for themselves, at the mercy of others and, indeed, of perilously dangerous practices. Leigh provides class contrast by following a sub-story involving the daughter of one of the wealthy women for whom Vera provides a cleaning service (her official, gainful employment), who is raped by a potential boyfriend and forced to recourse to a private termination. Leigh also portrays Stan’s brother Frank’s quiet frustration with his socially ambitious wife Joyce, who appears to hanker for a washing machine more than she wants her unborn child. Perhaps unusually for Leigh, these points are left implied rather than imposed, which perhaps leads to these various plot strands remaining unsatisfactorily unresolved.
Someone emerging from the cinema in front of me also clearly felt the film to be an unfair treatment of the 1950s, claiming ‘it was only the fifties, but from that you’d have thought it was the dark ages!’. This viewer clearly missed some of the more challenging and intriguing ambiguities within the film. Not all are immediately condemnatory of Vera – her son Sid claims that her actions are wrong, and that he may be unable to forgive her, but when he claims she has let the family down, Stan immediately and firmly disputes this. The reaction of the Drake family is as significant as Vera’s private devastation. In the earlier part of the film, Leigh constructs a convincing and richly detailed portrait of family life, for it to be profoundly challenged by the shocking revelations. Not only this, but the police investigation is conducted with a surprising sensitivity, They seem aware both of Vera’s humiliation and her kindness, yet they are bound by law to perform their duty. These are complex and sympathetic performances in roles that a lesser director may have made thankless.
Vera Drake is an intense, deeply moving and carefully crafted film of immense power, but it is perhaps not my favourite of Mike Leigh’s pictures. It shares some of the shocking revelations as his earlier masterpiece ‘Secrets and Lies’, but that film arguably adopted a less scholarly approach. It also lacks the mysterious allure of a film such as ‘Naked’. It is also slightly undermined by its persistent use of choral music, which, to me at least, felt slightly crass. What is Leigh trying to say with the use of this soundtrack? Is Vera supposed to be a saint or martyr, or is Leigh trying to confront fundamental positions on abortion and the sanctity of life? I suspect that Leigh has little interest in either of these notions, and that the music is simply inappropriate. Other than these small reservations though, ‘Vera Drake’ shows Leigh to be as uncompromising and confrontational as ever, and still eliciting sublime performances, both from the overwhelmingly compelling Staunton, and her talented supporting cast.