Monday, December 1, 2008

Film #93: Vera Drake

I’ve been a fan of the UK’s Mike Leigh ever since he delivered an incisive look at a working class love affair with High Hopes, back in the late 1980s. (I would consider that film his US breakthrough, even though he’d been making films in Britain since 1971’s Bleak Moments.) His is a unique voice on the world film scene, since he has almost exclusively focused his camera on Britain’s lower-economic echelons during his career.

No one makes movies like Leigh does. First, he starts with an idea, complete with a cast of characters. Then he casts the movie with his chosen actors. Once he has this element together, he fleshes out the script and the dialogue by holding long conferences/rehearsals with his actors. It’s there that he/they come up with the the film's dialogue. From there, Leigh retreats to his typewriter where, referring to his notes taken during these conference/rehearsal periods, he sets down everything that is to be said in each scene. And then it’s on to filming the scene itself. This is a process that repeats itself over and over again until the film is complete. No one in the world makes movies quite like this—or, at least, has been making them like this as long as Leigh has.

Mike Leigh has made lots of movies that have made waves here in America. One, Secrets and Lies, garnered Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Actress, Supporting Actress, Director and Original Screenplay in 1996. He’s also won a ton of awards at the Berlin, Venice, and Cannes film festivals. His past films include Life is Sweet (my personal favorite of his works), the shattering Naked (a Best Actor winner at Cannes, for David Thewlis), Topsy-Turvy (another Oscar winner, and an unusual period piece for Leigh), the incredibly downbeat All or Nothing, and this year’s Happy-Go-Lucky, a 2008 front-runner for Best Actress for Sally Hawkins’ lead performance.

But Vera Drake may be the most notable entry into his canon. It tells the story of a generous, giving housewife (played immaculately by Imelda Staunton, herself an Oscar nominee in 2004) who finds herself on the other side of the law when she's prosecuted by the 50s-era UK government for providing amateur abortions for women who couldn’t bear the birth of a child. The thing that’s amazing about this movie is that it fails to directly hit on the political ramifications of these actions. Vera Drake performs these services for very little money and, in her mind, they are actions of kindness. However, when one woman almost dies from her treatment, she is picked up by the authorities and prosecuted as if she were a murderer, even though she was not fully aware of the ramifications of what she was doing.Vera Drake, in a very stark and clever way, lets us revisit a time where unprofessional abortions resulted in the destruction of so many lives. In that way, it is a pro-choice movie. However, he movie's politics aren’t that clear-cut. It also shows Vera as a woman who truly loves the birth of wanted children, but who also realizes that some women might have their lives threatened by the prospect of childbirth. And, at the same time, it follows the lives of women who, say, have been raped (Sally Hawkins appears here as a rape victim), or who are otherwise without a voice as to whether they should have a child or not. It’s an immanently fair movie in regard to this thorny issue.

Imelda Staunton is incredible in the title role. In the first half, she is sweet, caring, and attentive. In the second half—which is brought on by her most memorable scene as the police come to her door while her family is celebrating the engagement of her daughter—she is a shattered woman, completely blindsided by her own unawareness of the depth of her actions. The performances of everyone in the supporting cast—as usual in a Mike Leigh film—are first rate. Richard Graham as her loving husband George, Alex Kelly as her shy daughter Ethel, Daniel Mays as her headstrong son Sid, Eddie Marsan as Ethel’s good-hearted husband-to-be Reg (he also delivers a memorable performance in Happy-Go-Lucky), Phil Davis as George’s loving brother Stan, Leslie Manville as Stan’s snooty wife Nellie, Ruth Sheen (from High Hopes) as Vera’s partner-in-“crime” Mrs. Wells, Peter Wight as Detective Inspector Webster, and Oscar-winner and Leigh-veteran Jim Broadbent as the case’s Judge---all are incredible.

Mike Leigh is one of the world’s most original filmmakers. And Vera Drake may be the most daring, riveting, and telling of all his films.

1 comment:

ratatouille's archives said...

Hi! Dean,
This film is most deinitely going into the (my) cart!...because it won hands down in a poll!...Btw,
get back to work!...for those "tabbies" ha!(I am not sure if they are tabbies, because I don't think they have stripes.)

The "Dame" ;-)