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Vera Drake from Mike Leigh

This is the first time in Mike Leigh's nine feature films that he has used the name of a character in the title. There is a reason for this. Most of his other films had various characters revolving around a central theme. Here, everything revolves around one protagonist, Vera Drake, a cheerful cleaning lady, who helps everybody she can. She is a loving wife and mother. However, sornething else she does out of the goodness of her heart, though unknown to her family, is help young girls get abortions. The portrayal by Imelda Staunton is a brilliant one of two halves, forever smiling and humming a tune to herself and then, when she has been found out, all tears, her face crumpling in pain.
The film, too, is in two halves, the first a black comedy of working class life and the second a tragedy. However, besides Staunton's potentially award-winning performance, and the superb casting of each character, is the intoxicating evocation of England in 1950, the England of austerity, rationing, the shadow of the war still hanging over it. Dick Pope's almost sepia cinematography and Eve Stewart's production design and the costume and make-up departments have recreated every nuance of the time without resorting to the picturesque or wallowing in nostagia as many period pieces do.
What Leigh has done with his script and direction, something that he is a master at, is find a balance between realism and stylisation, profound characterisation and caricature, which puts him in the tradition of Dickens. In fact there is a great deal which reminds one of the great English novelist, the gloomy streets of London, the dark view of a heartless society, but always hope and redemption. Vera Drake starts off as similar to Mrs Gump from Martin Chuzzlewit. She is an extremely English character.
There is the pervasive leit motif of the 'nice cuppa tea' offered at every occasion as the panacea for all ills. The first thing Vera Drake does when she returns home or has visitors is put the kettle on. It is significant that when she does her operations, she has to put the kettle on for the boiling water for the mixture she pumps into the girls. Then, when in prison, completely shamed and broken, she refuses a cup of tea.
At the beginning of his career, both in his television dramas and features, from Bleak Moments (1971) - which could be the title of many of his films - Leigh was criticised for patronising his characters, sometimes actually despising them. Since Secrets and Lies, which was a breakthrough - he became much warmer to his characters - the Brenda Blethyn character in the latter film, Timothy Spall in All or Nothing and now Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake, solicit our sympathy. Even Mike Leigh's favourite characters, the very plain simple-minded young single women, are given more depth. There is a wonderful scene when Ethel (Alex Kelly) Vera's pathetically shy daughter, is proposed to by the equally 'minable' boyfriend Reg (Eddie Marsan), when Ethel (many of the names like Ethel, Reg, Lily, Sid and Stan are seldom used these days) actually glows from within.
Perhaps, Leigh's new warmth now edges slightly towards sentimentality, especially here when Vera has to leave her family, which Leigh underlines with a heavenly chorus. And the interrogation by a sympathetic copper (Peter Wight) is a little overextended and the only thing Leigh can do to shorten the court case is by dissolves over a closeup of her face. A little more Bressonian distance would have made it even more poignant. Nevertheless, this loss has meant that Leigh's work has gained in maturity. There is also a slightly didactic element in the script in defence of the economic and/or social circumstances that forced these girls to have abortions, but the sad irony has Vera doing as much good as she does harm, giving the film a fascinating ambivalence.

Ronald Bergan


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