In time for Oscar night, Gary Couzens has reviewed Vera Drake, which has three nominations. One of Leigh’s best films, with a career-high performance from Imelda Staunton in the lead role, it’s currently on limited release in the UK and Ireland.
This review contains some minor plot spoilers
Islington, London, 1950. Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) works as a domestic cleaner. She’s the wife of Stan (Phil Davis) and the mother of Sid (Daniel Mays) and the painfully shy, plain Ethel (Alex Kelly). A happy family, trying to make ends meet in a Britain just recovering from the war. But none of them know that Vera has a secret career as an abortionist…
Mike Leigh took his characteristic subject matter and techniques probably as far as he could with Secrets and Lies. That was nine years ago, and many have wondered what Leigh would do next. His contemporary films since then, Career Girls and All or Nothing have had their moments, certainly, but have equally seemed to be treading water. But with his biopic of Gilbert & Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy, and now Vera Drake, he seems to have found inspiration from history.
The film takes its time to establish Vera, her family, friends and relations and her world, before revealing to the audience her work as an abortionist. We’re in a post-war Britain that was still being rationed, and it’s not too hard to work out that backstreet abortion is just another product and service that isn’t strictly legal but could be had if you know who to ask. Sid, for example, has a busy trade in cigarettes and nylons from the local pub. Sid also is shown to be persuading a girl to have sex with him…but when his mother’s activities come to light he is the most judgemental. Vera herself does her work out of a simple altruism, and doesn’t ask for money or favours. If anyone profits from her it’s her lifelong friend Lily (Ruth Sheen). As ever in a Leigh film, the production design (by Eve Stewart) is vitally important in establishing character and social situation. Dick Pope’s photography (originated on Super 16mm) is effective, though the brownish bleach-bypass period look is beginning to seem over-familiar. Leigh and his collaborators create a strong sense of period, though maybe it’s a little overdetermined in places – a shot where Vera opens a shopping bag full of very familiar contemporary brand names raised a laugh at the showing I attended. As for Leigh’s direction, it’s typically unobtrusive and at the service of his actors. One key moment in the film is conveyed by a long, long close-up that goes on for such a time that you wonder how it can possibly be sustained. But it is.
Imelda Staunton has always been an accomplished character actress, but her work here is worthy of the praise it’s been given. You suspect that her award nominations, as they did with Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies, will highlight a talent who has been around for some time and in danger of being neglected. It’s easy to overlook Phil Davis’s work as the not-fully-understanding but basically decent Stan. There’s a gallery of Leigh regulars in smaller roles, all immaculately acted, though Leigh’s touch briefly deserts him when dealing with some minor characters further up the social ladder.
In an era when abortion rights are under attack, Vera Drake is a reminder of what it used to be like. Without being too didactic, it shows a past reality that shouldn’t be returned to. Beautifully acted and made, and very moving, Vera Drake is one of Leigh’s best films, which is saying a lot.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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