Vera Drake (2004)
Directed by Mike Leigh
Cast: Imelda Staunton, Ruth Sheen, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Philip Davis, Jim Broadbent
I’ve mentioned before that Mike Leigh is the epitome of an actor’s director – meaning that, first and foremost, Leigh manages to consistently draw first rate performances from each of his actors (and I don’t mean that in a tyrannical way). The key to his success, where I believe so many other directors seemingly try and fail, is his method of creating his whole screenplay through improv with his actors. I’m not just talking about on-camera improv where actors may just go into a scene and improvise or ad lib some lines. The script simply doesn’t exist for Leigh going into production as he and his cast will go into the project and create the dialogue, through improvisation, acting out the story as they believe is true to their character. He seldom has an initial script, indeed, when Vera Drake was nominated for best original screenplay in 2004, Leigh actually had to go back and write one to hand over to the Academy. This is his method and the results are there on the screen – it’s remarkable every time, and none more so than Vera Drake, a film I consider to be one of his finest and an irrefutable entry into the Movie Bucket.
With Vera Drake, as with all of Leigh’s films, this method is what drives the story of a lovely woman, Vera (Imelda Staunton), a doting mother and wife who secretly performs abortions for the mostly underprivileged women of post-war London. This is not a side business, mind you, she doesn’t charge for it; Vera simply does it from the goodness of her heart, just as she does with everything in her life, and in this matter she looks at it as helping these girls out, which, in some of the scenarios given, is completely understandable. The movie draws a very fine and subtle contrast between the classes of 1950‘s London society, how they approached the procedure and the reasons why. One daughter of a rich family (Sally Hawkins) has to go through psychiatric analysis and has to pay a hefty fee for her procedure, whilst the man who raped her gets away scot-free. In Vera’s case, a lot of the patients are women who are under the same circumstances, or simply don’t have the means to provide for their children. The reasons vary, but the movie, much like it’s lead character, never judges nor justifies them, it merely observes and opts for understanding. It is, however, in Vera’s rather dangerous method that leads to her inevitable arrest following a procedure that nears fatality.
Unpleasant though the subject may seem, this movie never sets out on some political or moral agenda. Naturally any movie surrounding abortions is bound to have it’s moral dilemmas, but it is handled very delicately here, focusing more on the toll that this secret takes on Vera and her family. This is where the movie triumphs. Leigh has gathered an ensemble of actors (Staunton, Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Ruth Sheen, Jim Broadbent to name a few) that he uses frequently in all of his movies, and it works to the best of it’s advantages. The cast is impeccable in this movie, each character having something to add to the weight of the story that makes it all the more compelling. Thanks to Leigh’s method, every character feels natural as does their reactions. One scene in particular, a scene following Vera’s arrest where her secret is finally revealed to her husband and family, is incredibly impactful and upon some research it turns out that these reactions are, in fact, real as the cast wasn’t informed of Vera’s secret until that moment. The results make this movie steer away from what would typically fall into melodrama, and creates something so much more grounded and authentic, each emotion derived from something real.
Of course, this movie is about one person in particular, and that is Vera herself, portrayed with sublime tenderness by Staunton. Leigh has a knack for producing strong female leads, and Staunton is no exception. She’s simply perfect – you grow attached to her instantly with her heartwarming smile and sprightly, generous nature, which makes it all the more tragic when everything comes crashing down around her. Nobody is more aware of her crimes than Vera. She’s completely cooperative with the police, trying to be as honest as she can, though she’s utterly devastated and even more so when the police reveal that her “partner in crime” (Sheen), the middle-man between Vera and her patients, has been making money from the abortions. It’s such a phenomenally heartfelt performance, displaying the vast contrast between a cheerful and merry life to one filled with remorse, a remorse more over the fact that one of her patients nearly died, the betrayal of her friend and partner, and the devastation that her secret brings to her family. Her performance is outstanding and it should have bested any other in the 2004 awards race (note I say “SHOULD have”, she lost out to Hilary Swank at the Oscars), but that’s just the Oscars and they are filled with disappointment.
Just as with any other Leigh film, the performances and the approach to the story is what makes Vera Drake great. With a drama surrounding a controversial subject that never takes a stance on either side, but makes more of an understanding for a character’s motives and actions. As Eddie Marsan’s sweet and simple Reg states, “It’s alright if you’re rich, but if you can’t feed them, you can’t love them, can you?” – the one resounding statement of the film, and one that can’t be argued for the era. Despite your personal opinions on the subject, Vera Drake doesn’t set out to convince you of anything. What it does offer, however, is a superb drama, one that will bring both warmth and sadness, and featuring an array of wonderful performances. Check this one out because it is a beauty of a film, and I’d recommend any other of Leigh’s films to go with it, you won’t be disappointed.