Mike Leigh, UK, 2004
Posted: November 10,
Finding that perfect balance between social commentary and engaging
drama is never easy. On the one hand, there's an agenda to push.
Conversely, the entertainment quotient shouldn't be diminished to the
point that your audience feels as if they've been duped. Mike Leigh's
Vera Drake, unfortunately, errs on the side of social commentary.
Considering the respected British filmmaker's track record (All
or Nothing, Naked), this shouldn't come as a huge surprise.
Those hoping he'll make another Topsy-Turvy anytime soon have a
bit more waiting to do. Vera Drake is a cheerless examination of
its title character, a woman who induces miscarriages for those who
otherwise have no means to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. In 1950s
postwar London, where the film is set, performing such services is a
crime. Guess what happens to dear ol' Vera?
Before sending his heroine off to prison, however, Leigh needs to set
up the particulars of her life. (All the better to jerk those tears when
the police come knocking on her door.) Vera (Imelda Staunton) and her
husband, Stan (Philip Davis), live in a cramped tenement with their two
grown children, Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly). Stan is a
mechanic, in the employ of his veering toward middle class brother.
Vera, a domestic, leads a credulity-straining secret life that no one
else knows about. Through a friend, Vera is provided a time and a place
to pay those in need a visit. Kind soul that she is, Vera accepts no
payment for her service, merely doing so because the "poor dears" have
nowhere else to turn. That Vera's contact pockets money upfront from
prospective clients is never brought to her attention.
Leigh and Staunton go to great pains to show what a cheerful,
industrious and thankful-for-the-little-she-has type of person Vera is.
She keeps up her tiny home, checks in on her ailing mother, (as well as
invalids in the neighborhood), polishes brass for well-off families and
even finds time to set her old-maid-in-waiting daughter up with a man.
Vera Drake is too good to be true; a saint. And that's exactly what
she's supposed to be. Because like all good saints, she must be
martyred, so that we fussily complicated, naturally flawed folks can
feel really, really bad when the swift gavel of justice falls upon her.
A patient of Vera's falls ill after the procedure and is admitted to
the hospital, and that's when the truth comes out. Simple as that. And
at a celebratory dinner (for daughter Ethel's engagement, no less!),
Vera is hauled off by a sympathetic but duty-bound inspector. The law,
after all, is the law, even for meek, beatific women like Vera. But
Leigh has other axes to grind, as well. One of the houses Vera works in
includes a young girl who is date-raped and impregnated. Fortunately,
she's rich and can visit a "psychiatrist," who sees to it that she's
taken care of by understanding nuns. This subplot serves no other
purpose than to drive home the rather obvious point that rich people get
breaks that poor people can't afford. (Hey, Leigh just might be on to
something here!) On the upside, Leigh shows us how the well-off are cold
and distant whereas Vera and her struggling ilk are warm and loving.
Which must mean being rich isn't all it's cracked up to be. From a narrative standpoint, however, it's baldly
contrived, as we spend the majority of the movie with Vera and her
family. This detour only serves to underscore Leigh's message at the
expense of the film's continuity and flow -- which is strictly rigid to
Vera Drake trundles along with grim inevitably. We know she's
going to get punished in the end, and (not unlike
The Passion of the Christ)
we get to experience every humiliating, gut-wrenching moment. Not
exactly a study in concise editing. Imelda Staunton is a fine actress
and will no doubt fill her trophy case due to a performance built for
sympathetic hosannas. Suffering is but one dimension of a fully
developed character, however, and other than cheery and sobbing, there's
little in her role to hold onto. Leigh's postwar London "feels" right,
and the cast, as in almost all his films, is solid. But Vera Drake
can't overcome its director's ham-fisted sermonizing on how those with
little get the short shrift while the privileged play by a gilded
rulebook. We get the message. Now if only we'd been sufficiently
entertained while being spoon-fed every last bite.
design copyright © 2001-2011 Shaking Through.net. All original artwork,
photography and text used on this site is the sole copyright of the respective creator(s)/author(s). Reprinting, reposting, or citing any of the original
content appearing on this site without the written consent of Shaking
Through.net is strictly forbidden.