Elsewhere, the director imbues Vera Drake with a somewhat artificial flavor. True, the film's 1950s working-class environment looks real – cramped homes and ugly clothes – but Leigh, as usual, overdoes the unattractiveness of his characters. His laborers have bad teeth and funny faces, and several of them look like they might belong in a mental institution. (Alex Kelly's Ethel, Vera's pathologically shy daughter, is a typical inhabitant of Mike Leigh's Mondo Labor.) Worse yet, Leigh treats them like children – sympathetically, of course, but with a not inconsiderable degree of condescension.
In spite of the meticulous preparations and rehearsals that go into Leigh's projects – or perhaps because of them – several performances feel much too carefully calculated. Even so, a few of the supporting players deliver excellent work, most notably Ruth Sheen as the no-nonsense Lily, whose brittle haughtiness is one of the highlights of the film, and Eddie Marsan as Reg, Ethel's introspective suitor.
When, during a particularly dismal Christmas celebration at the Drakes, Reg tells Vera that the party is the best he has ever been to, "smashing," I was left wondering about the character's sanity and lack of tact, but I never doubted Marsan's sincerity as an actor. What could have been a ridiculous sequence is made quite touching by his performance. On a larger scale, the film itself is saved time and again by the performance of its star.
Imelda Staunton succeeds in displaying saintly character traits that almost invariably end up seeming sugary and phony, for Vera is not only selflessly kind, she is also brave, naïve, gentle, cuddly, and childlike. She is Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, and Minnie Mouse all rolled into one. And if that weren't enough, she talks the talk and walks the walk of those little fairy godmothers of Disney cartoons, her magic wand being the long rubber tube she inserts into her patients' vaginas. A few short words, and voilà! Pregnancy over.
If all this sounds utterly ridiculous, well, it is. But Staunton is such a consummate actress, tackling her role with such gusto and honesty that when Vera sheds a little tear here, a bigger one there, I didn't feel like slapping her out of her misery. Instead, I wanted to hug her while shedding my own big and small tears, too. That is how convincing she is as a personification of goodness, the likes of which have rarely been seen on screen.
In the hands of most other performers, Vera would doubtlessly have begged for our sympathy while suffering under the thumb of an unpitying justice system. Capable actors, from Charles Chaplin as the poor little tramp to Brenda Blethyn as the poor little single mother in Leigh's own Secrets & Lies, have frequently fallen into the hole of self-pity.
Had Vera Drake been made in 1950s Italy, the – slightly altered – title role would most likely have been played by Giulietta Masina. Masina was an expert at using her enormous, sad eyes to beg audiences for compassion, as can be attested in Federico Fellini's La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. Staunton never resorts to such tactics. Overflowing with kindness and light, she knows we will care even more if she refuses to ask for our pity.
If only Mike Leigh trusted his audience as much. Despite having stacked nearly all cards in Vera's favor, Leigh still insists on making sure we realize that Vera is morally superior to those who judge her. For instance, after our heroine's big secret is revealed her selfish and – horrors! – highly sexual sister-in-law, the bourgeois Joyce (Heather Craney), has the gall to remark, "How could she be so selfish?" How indeed.
Fortunately, Imelda Staunton trusts us unconditionally. As a result, Vera Drake stands tall atop this actress' tiny – but incredibly powerful – shoulders.
Note: A version of this Vera Drake review was initially posted in November 2004.
3 Academy Award Nominations
Best Direction: Mike Leigh
Best Actress: Imelda Staunton
Best Original Screenplay: Mike Leigh