Vera Drake written and directed by Mike Leigh, produced by Simon Channing-Williams, with Imelda Staunton, Richard Graham, Phil Davis and Ruth Sheen. 124 minutes. A Thin Man Films/Studio Canal production. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (October 22). For venues and times, see Movies, page 107. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
It's not fair to call Mike Leigh a one-trick pony, but since the monumental achievement of Topsy-Turvy, he's shown an unfortunate inclination to fall back on the subject of working-class depression that he explored in his best-known works of the 90s, Life Is Sweet and Secrets & Lies.
His last film, All Or Nothing, was a minor melodrama about a hateful working-class family. Although Timothy Spall's cab-driving dad was decent and caring despite having raised two monsters, it was hard to work up sympathy for a family whose most frequent parent-child exchange was "Fuck off."
Vera Drake, which won prizes at the Venice Film Festival for Leigh and star Imelda Staunton, is the story of a working-class north London family in 1950.
Dad's a mechanic, Mom's a domestic, the grown son works for a haberdasher and the daughter's kind of a lump. Her parents did her no favour by naming her Ethel.
Vera Drake is a bit slow-growing. It uses Leigh's trademark detailing of ordinary life: the round of visits, the care for Vera's aged mom, the floor-scrubbing, the endless cups of tea, the physical maneouvring within the tiny confines of the apartment, the godawful wallpaper that has you wishing the guys from Queer Eye would show up.
Vera is an abortionist. She doesn't use that term herself, just describing herself as someone who "helps girls out." She gets no money for it, though Lily (Leigh regular Ruth Sheen), a woman she thinks is her friend, gets a couple of guineas as her agent.
The film starts with about 80 minutes of choked emotional repression. The scenes of Ethel and her "suitor" - a nice young man her mum brought home - seated frozen on the settee, not speaking, have a precise horror. These are two people with nothing in common and nothing to talk about. Ethel's just thrilled to have anyone take an interest in her but has no way to express this.
Staunton, a veteran British actor best known to North American audiences as Gwyneth Paltrow's governess in Shakespeare In Love and for the indie Antonia And Jane, is tremendous as Vera. It's a performance of cheer constructed as emotional armour and powered by briskness. Everything she says and does tries for genteel working-class niceness.
When Vera's world collapses (one of her clients nearly dies and she's arrested), Staunton suggests not that an emotional dam has broken but that water is being forced through a couple of large cracks.
Leigh's given us these themes and techniques before, including the film's curious moral geometry. Vera's story is contrasted with that of an upper-class young woman, the daughter of people whose house Vera cleans. She's date-raped and impregnated (one strike against the upper classes; Ethel's suitor would never do such a thing) and is able to get a medical, albeit illegal, abortion. Someone should really point out to English filmmakers that firing on the English upper classes is like shooting at fish in a barrel.
Then there's the upward-aspiring sister-in-law. The same character appeared in a contemporary setting in Secrets & Lies. In Leigh's world, a clear complexion is a sign of moral turpitude.
Leigh has an extraordinary modus operandi. He and his cast work on a film for a year to settle on a script and characters. Topsy-Turvy revealed that you can turn that method to subjects other than the emotional pain of the working class.
Leigh's wrung that subject fairly dry over the last 15 years.