As faithful readers of 317am know, recently I’ve been posting some DVD reviews of films that were disappointing. Bashing movies can be fun, but also a little demoralizng for lovers of the cinema like me. So I’ve decided to run a counter-reviewing operation. In addition to Schlock Warnings, then, from time to time I’ll point out a movie that has surprised me with its quality. My first recommendation is a 2004 British film called Vera Drake, the name of the protagonist. Here’s what I liked.
This is one of the great director Mike Leigh’s signature dissections of British lower-class life in the vein of Secrets & Lies. This time it’s 1950, the war is not long over, and Vera Drake, embodied beautifully by Imelda Staunton, is a bustling bit of cheer in a dark, clenched era of economic and social repression.
Vera, a cleaning woman who also tends a string of invalids, manages to lift everyone she knows with her all-purpose cup of tea and a pleasant word. She’s one of those natural saints – quite simply a good soul whose empathetic largess extends even to “helping girls who get in trouble.” Using a basin of hot water, a little soap, a syringe, and a gentle word, Vera assures many a poor girl that it will all be taken care of in a day or two and it is – until one girl winds up in the hospital with complications and the authorities enter Vera’s life.
Leigh masterfully creates a world where the sky is gray and often spitting snow, and characters are crammed into tiny rooms for tea and supper. The visual spaces, of course, mirror the inhibited, limited lives.
Leigh has the wisdom to make sure that no role is overplayed – from Vera’s loyal husband to the very British police inspector who firmly, properly, and even sympathetically questions Vera. Leigh lets this devastating interrogation play out very slowly in what seems like real time. You can see why Imelda Staunton was nominated for an Oscar. Both Vera’s in the film – the happy do-gooder of the first half and the stricken, shamed woman who can hardly speak a word in police custody – are utterly convincing.
Leigh’s skill at casting and then building up the tiny details of setting, character, and dialogue makes this a great film about real people at a particular time and place. Only incidentally do we realize afterward that the movie has made us think about the complexities of the abortion debate in a way that no discussion of abstract principles possibly could.