Friday, November 04, 2005

Vera Drake (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Despite many efforts to create some sort of centrist "multi-cultural" consensus as the universal ideology of globalised post-Cold War world, there are some issues that still sharply divide people, even in supposedly enlightened Western liberal democracies. One of those thorny issues is abortion - a debate whose occasional escalation into violence in USA only underlines high levels of emotions stirred in other parts of the world. Because of that, Hollywood tackled the abortion themes very rarely, usually with unsatisfactory results due to Hollywood liberal and leftist filmmakers not being able to channel their "pro choice" views without turning such films into cheap propaganda. What most Hollywood films lack - connection with real life instead cheap stereotypes - is something British director Mike Leigh has, and his exploration of abortion issue in his 2004 drama VERA DRAKE resulted in rave reviews and prestigious awards at Venice Film Festival.

The plot is set in 1950 London, a place still recuperating from devastating effects of World War II. Poverty and food rationing, however, are at least partially alleviated in a home of Vera Drake (played by Imelda Staunton), middle-aged woman who spends any conceivable moment to make life better for her loving husband Stan (played by Phil Davis), ambitious son Sid (played by David Mays) and pathologically shy daughter Ethel (played by Alex Kelly) for whom she would find perfect match in lonely war veteran Reg (played by Eddie Marsan). Vera Drake's friends, relatives and neighbours think of her as an angel, not knowing that she also happens to be something more to numerous women whose "troubles" are removed with a help of soap, hot water, one surgical instrument, cup of tea and few kind words. When one of such procedures results in medical complications, hospital authorities inform police and Detective Inspector Webster (played by Peter Wight) quickly tracks Vera Drake down. Confronted with the illegality of her action, Vera Drake breaks down and her small family utopia is shattered.

Mike Leigh's decision to set his abortion-themed film in mid 20th Century is understandable, because Britain in those times was more impoverished and more socially stratified than now, thus making some of the abortion-related issues easier to portray. Contraception is not part of people's vocabulary, while abortions are illegal. In such conditions more women get unwanted pregnancies while, at the same time, their options are limited to two very unpleasant alternatives - either having a child that would grow up in nothing but misery or risking life in back alleys. Leigh, on the other hand, doesn't present the "pro choice" case explicitly and even those with "pro life" views might find arguments for their side in VERA DRAKE. Film suggests that Vera - one of the most angelic and kind-hearted characters to appear on silver screen - is also product of unwanted pregnancy, and that people actually might find happiness even if they live in poverty. Women who decide to abort often got pregnant because of their own stupidity and irresponsibility, and VERA DRAKE wisely avoids portraying them as victims or proto-feminist heroines. Leigh recognises divisiveness of the issue by having Vera Drake's family reacting to the revelation of her activities in very different ways.

Like in all Mike Leigh's films, the acting is simply superb. Word "great" doesn't do justice to what Imelda Staunton delivers with her performance. The rest of cast is also wonderful - they all portray simple, ordinary people who quickly win audience's heart. Even the character of police detective - embodiment of heroine's downfall - is portrayed as sympathetic human being rather than cold and heartless enforcer of oppressive laws. Although VERA DRAKE happens to look like relatively cheap film, a huge effort in researching and recreating post-war London manifests itself in many scenes. Even the Andrew Dickson's musical score - one of the weakest points of Mike Leigh's previous films - serves good dramatic purpose in VERA DRAKE.

However, even this film has its weaknesses. The shift between long, methodical exposition of Vera Drake's world in the first and its tragic dissolution in the second half of film is mishandled. Vera Drake not taking money for her services is an issue left unexplored, while the ending is unsatisfactory. But the most visible of all film's flaws is in Mike Leigh trying too hard to give social dimension to abortion issue by adding subplot about Vera Drake's rich employer's daughter solving her "problem" in nice, clean and discreet way that money and proper social position can obtain. Although Sally Hawking plays that character very well, she is instantly recognised as a plot device rather than character in her own right.

Despite those flaws, VERA DRAKE deserves praise as a very good film that approaches some difficult and divisive issues in an intelligent and humane way.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)


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