Thursday, January 20, 2011

Vera Drake

Originally Written and Posted at on 9/29/09.

2002's All or Nothing about working class families drew excellent reviews with most critics and audiences but some felt that the film's writer/director Mike Leigh created a film that was too depressing. Despite the criticism towards the film, Leigh moved ahead to another project that would be set in the 1950s about a woman performing illegal abortions for working class women as she would find herself getting in trouble with the law. The film would ultimately be one of Leigh's finest films entitled Vera Drake.

Written and directed by Mike Leigh, Vera Drake tells the story of a woman from a working class family who performs illegal abortions for women around her working class neighborhood. When something goes wrong, she is caught as she is questioned about doing the right thing. Playing the title role is Imelda Staunton, then a renowned and acclaimed supporting/character actress, in a rare leading role that would bring her much attention and acclaim. Also starring Phillip Davis, Ruth Sheen, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Eddie Marsan, Sally Hawkins, and Jim Broadbent. Vera Drake is a harrowing yet powerful period-drama from Mike Leigh and company.

It's 1950 as Vera Drake works cleaning houses for the upper class while her husband Stan (Phillip Davis) works at an auto shop with his brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough). Vera and Stan's children also work as their son Sid (Daniel Mays) works for a tailor selling suits while Ethel (Alex Kelly) works at a factory. The family maintains a close bond as Vera also keeps track of the people she help out like George (Richard Graham) who is ill while inviting a young name Reg (Eddie Marsan) to dinner. The dinner turns out well as Reg and the shy Ethel start to date. What the family doesn't know is that the good-hearted Vera also helps young women in performing illegal abortions though she doesn't call them abortions.

Helping Vera out in giving assignments is her friend Lily (Ruth Sheen) as she takes payment from young women without telling Vera. Instead, she gives Vera things like sugar and such for a small fee. While Vera performs illegal abortions to working-class women, a young rich girl named Sarah (Sally Hawkins) was raped as she turns to a friend for help. Sarah talks to a psychiatrist (Allan Corunder) for help where she gets a private abortion that is performed. When Vera performs an abortion for a young woman (Liz White), the woman later becomes ill as her mother (Lesley Sharp) is forced to reveal secrets. The Drake family including Frank's wife Joyce (Heather Craney) decide to make a family celebration, an investigator (Peter Wight) appears to ask questions about Vera as she knows what it is about.

The film can be described as a drama about a woman who believes she does good thing and at heart, she is a good person. She helps out people and doesn't ask much in return. Whether it's her mother (Sandra Voe), a neighbor, or anyone. Even the rich people she works for seem gracious to her. Yet, she has a secret which is horrifying but she takes it in stride and maintains an upbeat persona. When she is caught, her world is shattered as well as the close bond of her family. Yet, the film is a character study of a woman who believes she is doing good things though what she is doing is wrong. At the same time, there's a little subplot about how rich women deal with abortions.

Mike Leigh's screenplay (or lack thereof) definitely reveals how abortions were performed and what working-class women had to do in order to get abortions performed along with insight of what rich women do. The script also goes into detail of the strong family bond and how they support each other where each character is given a chance for the audience to know about them. The film starts off in an upbeat tone throughout its first two acts but then comes this harrowing third act that shatters the upbeat tone of the film as it becomes devastating. Then comes this debate about the act of illegal abortions of whether what Vera did was right or wrong. Yet, the focus is more on her family and how they have to deal with it.

Leigh's direction is truly fascinating in terms of its dramatic staging, setting up a tone, and putting in a subplot without taking focus away from the film's subject and protagonist. Even in scenes where he creates simple shots for certain locations where there's a simplicity to his presentation. It's intimate, theatrical, yet engaging in what Leigh is doing with the camera and scenery. The dramatic tension of the film in the third act is presented with subtlety but also a heaviness that is expected but in a visceral way. The overall approach of Leigh's direction and how he presented each scene whether it's a moment of humor or a dramatic moment. He creates a film that is truly powerful while taking on a subject matter about abortion without taking on either sides.

Leigh's longtime cinematographer Dick Pope does brilliant work with the film's cinematography with low colors to help represent the dreary look of early 1950s England. With exteriors filled with light blue, gray, dark green colors depending on the tone of the scene and what's happening. Pope's work in the interior scenes is exquisite with a slew of colors for whatever scene that's happening. Whether its lighter colors for the posh scenes or the dark yet cheerful tone for the home of the Drake family. Pope's camera work is truly phenomenal in creating an atmosphere for the film and its period setting.

Editor Jim Clark does excellent work with the editing, notably in the rhythm of the dramatic tension and scenes involving objects. Clark's methodical pacing for the film works very well in terms of its structuring as well as setting a tone for what will happen in the third act. Production designer Eve Stewart with set decorator John Bush and art directors Andrew Grant and Ed Walsh do fantastic work with the design of the homes and places that Vera goes to from the posh homes that she works for to the home that she lives. Yet, the places in the film also play to the different class structure as Vera's sister-in-law lives in a middle class suburb with her husband as the art direction overall is brilliant. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran does exquisite work with the costume design in creating nice period clothing for all the actors and actresses involved including the green coat that Vera wears to the rich clothing that Sarah and her peers wear.

Sound editor Nigel Stone and recordist Tim Fraser do very good work with the sound, notably the atmosphere of 1950s London in its exteriors plus the harrowing sounds of the police station and courtroom scenes in the third act. Music composer Andrew Dickson creates a plaintive yet heavy score with orchestral arrangements that plays to the myriad of emotions that goes on in the film without being overdrawn or underplaying the scene. Dickson's score is excellent in its subtlety as it is one of the film's technical highlights.

The casting by Nina Gold is superb as it features cameos from some of Leigh's repertoire of regulars including Allan Corunder as a psychiatrist, Leslie Manville as Susan's mother, Lesley Sharp as the mother of a young woman who got ill from an abortion, and Jim Broadbent as a judge. In the roles of the women who get abortions from Vera are Sinead Matthews, Tilly Vosburgh, Vinette Robinson, and Liz White as the woman who gets sick. Other notable small roles include Nicholas Jones as a defense attorney, Paul Jesson as a magistrate, Martin Savage as a detective, Richard Graham as a sick neighbor of Vera, and Sandra Voe as Vera's mother. Peter Wight is excellent as a sympathetic investigator while Heather Craney is very good as Vera's sister-in-law who would become indifferent to her after what happened.

Alex Kelly is very good as Vera's shy daughter Ethel while Daniel Mays is great as Vera's son Sid as they both try to come to terms with what happened. Eddie Marsan is really good as Reg, a neighbor who becomes Ethel's new boyfriend as he manages to have a great moment through simple dialogue in a key scene in the third act. Sally Hawkins is also good as Sarah, a young rich woman who gets raped as she tries to get an abortion through her own world. Ruth Sheen is excellent as Lily, Vera's friend who makes money off of the illegal abortions while making rules of what to do while being a generous friend to Vera. Adrian Scarborough is really good as Frank, Stan's brother who has a loyalty to Vera as she helped him grow up through the years. Phillip Davis is superb as Stan, Vera's loving husband who is devoted to her. Even as he discovers her secret while having a say about what the family should do in the midst of all that has happened.

Finally, there's Imelda Staunton in what is truly a radiant performance for the veteran British actress in the title role. Staunton's cheerful, winning smile in the film's first two acts is filled with a joyful presence while making her likeable enough despite what she's doing illegally. At the same time, there's a sense of warmth that is comforting to watch until when she is caught. She loses all of that and she becomes this fragile being forced to lose things including herself. Yet, Staunton remains a powerful presence as she remains quiet and maintaining her dignity despite her attempts to overcome her emotions. It's truly a mesmerizing performance for the British actress.

Released in the fall of 2004, the film was a major hit at the Venice Film Festival winning two prestigious prizes including a Best Actress Volpi Cup prize to Staunton and the Golden Lion to Mike Leigh. The film would garner several accolades including 3 Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Original Screenplay for Leigh and Best Actress for Staunton. The film would win 3 British Academy Awards which included Best Actress for Staunton, Best Director to Leigh, and Best Costume design along with nominations for Best Picture, Supporting Actor & Actress, & Best British Film.

Vera Drake is a powerful, harrowing, yet entrancing film from Mike Leigh and company which includes a powerful performance from Imelda Staunton. The film is no doubt one of Leigh's best among such classics as Naked and Secret & Lies as Leigh fans will certainly enjoy it. Audiences who are into great acting, dramatic staging, and strong subject matters will no doubt enjoy this though it's not a film for everyone. In the end, Vera Drake is one of the best British films to come out of this decade as well as one of Mike Leigh's most enduring films of his acclaimed career.

Mike Leigh Films: (Bleak Moments) - (Hard Labour) - (The Permissive Society) - (Knock for Knock) - (Nuts in May) - (Abigail's Party) - (Kiss of Death) - (Who's Who) - (Grown-Ups) - (Home Sweet Home) - (Meantime) - (Four Days in July) - (High Hopes) - Life is Sweet - Naked - Secrets & Lies - Career Girls - Topsy-Turvy - All or Nothing - Happy-Go-Lucky - Another Year - Mr. Turner

(C) thevoid99 2011

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