Vera Drake Review
The Drakes are a typical North London working class family in 1950’s post-war England. Stan Drake (Phil Davis) works as a mechanic in a garage with his brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough). Stan’s wife Vera (Imelda Staunton) does a little bit of work as a cleaning lady. Despite the deprivations of rationing which is still in place after the war, the family seem to be able to get by topping up their modest needs through some small-time blackmarket dealings with Vera’s friend Lily (Ruth Sheen). However, Lily provides Vera with another little sideline that her family know nothing about – she provides home abortions for young girls who have gotten into trouble, married women who can’t cope with any more children and anyone too poor, too desperate or too ashamed to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. Vera provides this service out of compassion for the women and girls concerned and she does it efficiently and for free. But what she is doing is illegal and when her activity is uncovered, it shocks society and her own family.
Vera Drake is a masterfully competent piece of filmmaking by Mike Leigh. A veritable masterclass in filmmaking, it nevertheless does feel very academic and studied and is not quite rough enough about the edges. Every frame is composed and lit to perfection, down to the finest detail – colour, lighting, tone, set design, meticulous period detail, costumes, casting and the acting – even the faces are perfect for the character of the period, wonderfully acted down to the most minute gesture. The script and dialogue are flawless, simple and realistic (“A nice cup of tea is what you need. You’ll be right as rain.”) and the plot moves purposefully from A to B to C, building up character detail, defining relationships and attitudes and foreshadowing the advances to come in the plot, with not a superfluous gesture or detail unexplored.
The film is also careful in presenting all aspects of its subject from every angle, underlining and supporting the main premise. To show beyond the working class angle, a parallel comparison is made with a rich girl who becomes pregnant (Sally Hawkins) when her boyfriend forces himself upon her. Leigh shows, with precision and detail to the law and the medical regulations, the way dealing with an unwanted pregnancy is handled for the rich and privileged, offering a contrast and showing the hypocrisy of a society that looks upon one method with distaste, yet turns a blind eye to the other.
Even the dynamic within Vera’s own family operates as a microcosm for the society outside. Her son Sidney (Daniel Mays) is a bit of a ladies man, the type of boy who gets into trouble the girls Vera has to help out. He also does a little sideline in stockings from the tailor’s where he works. Vera’s daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) is the shy, awkward type of girl with little knowledge of the workings of the world and no experience of men. These are the types of girls Vera works with every day. There is further compare and contrast in Vera’s extended family – her brother-in-law Frank and Joyce present the other side of the coin, just to show you that not everyone is looking for an abortion and that there is another happier side to pregnancy. They have been trying to have a baby and everyone is delighted when Joyce becomes pregnant. It also presents a different face to Vera to show that she is a genuinely caring woman, who is only helping out those women who need her services, and that she is not just a heartless baby-hating abortionist.
Leigh covers every angle and it’s a text-book piece of filmmaking. Every detail is mastered – the filmmaker is in control of every single element and not a detail left to chance or possible misinterpretation. Yet – to me at any rate – it never shows a single spark of real life, remaining cold and soulless, a little bit too mannered and a little bit too perfect. You never forget for a moment that you are looking at a perfectly crafted piece of filmmaking that moves at a funereal pace towards a coldly calculated conclusion where the inevitable and well-signposted outcome is never for a second in doubt.
Vera Drake is released on UK Region 2 DVD by Momentum. There is only one brief extra feature on the DVD (which is still more than the Region 1 release), so with a two-hour film on a dual-layer disc, the emphasis here is on the transfer quality of the film itself. The DVD has several forced trailers for films, Anti-Piracy and the UK Film Council. These can’t be skipped, but out of principle, I suggest you fast-forward through them. You should not have to endure this every time you load the DVD.
The picture quality is quite fabulous. There is a warmth and a richness of colour that I haven’t seen on a film since In The Mood For Love (and a similar attention to and treatment of period detail). There is a faint level of grain and a hint of softness – no doubt due to the Super 16 film stock used – which is appropriate for the film, giving it a nice character. It’s possibly a little too soft on occasions – close-ups show good detail, but the picture tends to blur in medium to long shots, losing some of the detail. I suspect also that this may be a high-quality video-sourced transfer, as cross-colouration can sometimes be seen in grainy backgrounds. Otherwise the image looks very fine and the transfer is well presented on the DVD-9 disc.
The soundtrack is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix which is obviously not full of special effects, but makes appropriate use of the speakers with the dialogue centre-based and some sound effects spreading out discreetly across the surrounds. The sound is quite strong and clear and brings out the detail on the soundtrack well.
English hard of hearing subtitles are included on the DVD.
The only extra features on the DVD are a Trailer which inevitably gives away a lot of the film’s premise and development, and a Cast & Crew Documentary (11:22), featuring Mike Leigh talking about his approach to the film’s subject matter, Staunton, Davis and Mays, talking about the acting preparations and improvisations and cinematographer Dick Pope adds a few comments.
Vera Drake is quite clearly an impressive film by a director who is a master of his craft – and it certainly impressed the jury at Venice, where it won the Golden Lion for Best Film and unsurprisingly gained three Academy Award nominations. Everything is however spelt out a little too meticulously, the period detail is a little too obsessively re-created, the characters are well-drawn and performed but a little one-dimensional, leaving no room for ambiguity or complexity. There is nothing either the plot or character development that is going to surprise or challenge your views – you know where this one is going from the minute the premise is introduced and the film takes you there with competent professionalism. The DVD is short on the extra features that might have reasonably been expected for an Oscar nominated film, but the quality of the transfer is hard to fault.