Sunday, February 27, 2005

Vera Drake

Vera Drake (Director: Mike Leigh)

Mike Leigh is a critical darling. This is his 3rd writing Oscar nomination and his 2nd directing. His other films of note are Secrets & Lies (Oscar noms for writing and directing) and Topsy-Turvy (writing), which I have not seen. The only other movie I've seen of Leigh's is 1993's Naked, which I found impenetrable then due to thick accents and a strangely constructed narrative--a movie I might enjoy today.

With this film, I have now seen all of the major Oscar nominees. It's easy to see why Imelda Staunton, playing the title character, is getting a vogue upset pick in the Best Actress category over Hilary Swank and Annette Bening. Her performance is top-notch.

You can, if you like, throw your opinions out the door on abortion while you watch this, because this is not a film that has dramatic speeches about how it should be accepted or that people who don't like it are misguided, uninformed. This film is the total opposite of the liberals-in-your-face HBO film If These Walls Could Talk, which is so smothering in its pro-choice stance that it doesn't allow the viewer to breathe.

It's just after World War II, and Vera Drake (Staunton) is a simple housewife, one who earns her living taking care of people. Her thoughts are always on other people, inviting total strangers for tea, helping people out. She is probably the most caring, sensitive, likeable person on the planet. However, she has a secret, and that is she "helps young girls out," those who cannot afford to go to a doctor to do it. She takes no money for her trouble, and in fact receives her clients from a friend who accepts money behind her back. Her belief is that there are situations in which a woman needs to free herself from her pregnancy (all of them are shown: abusive boyfriend, rape, too many kids, and despite her moral objection, pregnancy from an affair), although it doesn't seem she gets too caught up in the reasons--it just needs to be done.

None of her family knows that she does this. During the day, her husband Stan (Phil Davis)works as an auto engineer with his brother Frank (Adrian Scarsborough), her son Sid (Daniel Mays) is a tailor, and her daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) has begun a blossoming romance with Reg (Eddie Marsan), one of the strangers who had been invited for tea. Life goes on in a normal fashion until one of Vera's patients gets deathly ill, and a chain of events occurs by which she must answer to the police. Once again, Vera shows her true colors, unwilling to hide anything, telling the truth at all times--breaking down because she has misled her family. In another great supporting performance, Peter Wright, as Inspector Webster, calmly upholds the law even in the face of someone who seemingly doesn't deserve it, but in his case justice is truly blind.

And this is where the movie gets such great emotional strength, because Vera Drake is created to be the nicest person on Earth. She doesn't feel that she has done anything wrong, but she has, and although she's certainly no down-and-dirty menace to society, she has done something she knows is criminal. It is here where your thoughts on abortion will surely come to light. Many will say, nice person, but she broke the law and did a horrible thing. Many will also say, this woman doesn't deserve this at all--she performed these operations with safety in mind and with care, and she did something that was necessary in the post-World War II era. Still others will say, OK, she did something I don't think is wrong, but she did break the law, and therefore deserves her punishment.

It's that kind of movie, not to persuade you about the extremely heated argument that has gone on for years. In many ways, it's kind of like Sling Blade in that our main character has a remarkable soul but is prone to tragically break the law when moral obligations force morally cloudy situations to their attention. Vera Drake certainly deserves mention as one of the top films of 2004, for it's even-keeled observations on a touchy subject.


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