Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead
The term “ray of sunshine” may never have been embodied more convincingly, or more movingly, than by the English actress Imelda Staunton, in the title role of Mike Leigh’s film Vera Drake.
A working wife in London of 1950, Vera devotes herself, in between cleaning the houses of rich people and caring for her adoring husband
(Phil Davis) and their grown son and daughter, to comforting her family members, friends, neighbors and even strangers.
Doing for others seems to come as naturally as breathing to her—she sings happily to herself as she dusts, or makes tea, or prepares to perform…an abortion.
Although advocates on both sides of the controversy toss around the image of the “back-alley abortionist,” Leigh’s idea, with Vera Drake, appears to revolve around giving a human face, and presumably humane motivations, to this rhetorical stock figure.
Vera performs her services free of charge—unaware that the woman who arranges them does so at a profit—in
the name of “helping out young girls.”
This was felony at the time, of course, and eventually the police become aware of Vera’s activities, and she’s arrested and charged, to the bewilderment of her family.
From this point on, Staunton, who so vividly depicted a happy, nurturing spirit, now just as intensively depicts that of a broken spirit.
From the moment she’s confronted by the authorities, Vera suffers a nearly complete emotional collapse, and is left unable to defend herself. She is barely able to speak or think.
Out of this before-and-after contrast comes the best film acting of the year, a classic performance that can take its place among the best of all time, no matter the viewer’s opinion on a highly emotional and volatile issue.
Superb as Staunton is, she isn’t the whole reason that Vera Drake is so noteworthy. Every member of the huge ensemble cast rings true, and Leigh’s unhurried yet carefully structured storyline gives even the minor characters a depth and complexity which, along with much attention to period detail, helps to put the movie’s issues in context.
So does Leigh’s refusal to melodramatize Vera’s fate. What happens to her is shattering, but the effects aren’t maudlinly milked.
The police aren’t particularly unkind to her, and it’s clear that she and her family, despite the situation in which they find themselves, will carry on.
While it isn’t hard to guess where Leigh’s sympathies lie with regard to Vera Drake’s core issue, this unusually rich drama can be interpreted as possessing a profound relevancy to altogether differing viewpoints.
Whichever of those views is yours, you’re likely to find this film both absorbing and thought-provoking.