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Poor Dears

  Vera Drake

 

Mike Leigh, UK, 2004

Rating: 2.7

 

Posted: November 10, 2004

By Laurence Station

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 begin with.

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.

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