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VERA DRAKE Review Pt.2 - Imelda Staunton

Alex Kelly, Imelda Staunton, Philip Davis in Vera Drake
Alex Kelly, Daniel Mays, Imelda Staunton, Philip Davis in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake

VERA DRAKE Review: Part I

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 in Vera Drake

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

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1 Comment to VERA DRAKE Review Pt.2 - Imelda Staunton

  1. Kevin Aschacker

    What a disservice to an incredibly nuanced film. To completely misunderstand the period (post-war London) is bad enough, but to then scramble to attach various garden-variety adjectives in a vain and utterly transparent ham-handed attempt to ‘describe’ the plot deserves two and a half years in jail. Perhaps readers of People magazine and watchers of situation-comedies have been completely enlightened and become scholarly students of Mike Leigh films in the wake of this erudite and probing essay on the manners of the London working-class circa 1950. But I highly doubt it.

    With regard to the appearance of the characters, those with ‘bad teeth and funny faces’ or the ones who ‘look like they might belong in a mental institution’, I’ll only say that like very much of the best English-language drama that is born in the U.K., the characters are and feel like real people. You know, not vacuous seeming and generic-looking ‘pretty’ types. Why, what a brash approach! Imagine, Leigh values authenticity! Where does he get off, not realizing some film ‘reviewers’ want to see American Gladiators and starlets in gritty character studies? The cheek.

    And this device Leigh employs, you know, the one where he ‘condescends’ to these evocative, sympathetic characters while simultaneously painting a heart-rending and quietly jarring study of manners and morals at street-level! What a Machiavelli! The sparse and real dialogue must be so ‘carefully calculated’ that it unhinges the viewing experience of some.

    This film is a detailed and intricate exposee of an unkown time as seen from the viewpoint of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Sixty years never seemed a chasm so wide. In 1950 in poor working-class districts of London, memories of the blitz were fresh and immediate, and intricate details of who died and where and how were vernacular, spoken in a language everyone knew. Neighbourhoods were incredibly intimate and tight-knit extended ‘families’ of the people who had done the heavy-lifting of war, sending sons (and daughters) away. Those who stayed were mercilessly bombarded and all the horrors of injury and disease that came afterward were a grim years-long reminder of the hell that came from the skies. The incredibly sharp contrast that Leigh draws with the return to innocent daily life is masterful medicine to remind us that darkness fades. These characters are exactly as they should be. Full of the quiet understated joy of daily preoccupation with life. We don’t need flash and dash to draw these scenes, the reality of the working-class and the quiet almost ego-less studies in these performances are exactly on the mark.

    I understand that for some viewers, the ability to actually know what they are looking at is elusive. This is more true with authentically re-created period settings and the manners that inhabit them than it is with a more -egalitarian- approach to movie-making. Thankfully we have the superb work of Mike Leigh to remind us that real film is not only possible but far more interesting than the average flick.

    All these performances are superbly good, from Imelda Staunton to Sally Hawkins and even the amazingly endearing work that Alex Kelly turns in. This is a master-class in movie-making, a clinic. It’s worth watching twice. I felt more than ‘trusted’ while watching it. And not at all condescended to.







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