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"That's not what I call it..."
A film review of VERA DRAKE by Camus

Certain human experiences cry out for subtext and allegory when depicted in movies. Sally Bowles (the magnificent Liza Minelli in Cabaret) has decided against becoming a mother. Resplendent in an absurdly expensive fur coat, she climbs the steps of (presumably) the freelance man or woman who can assist her in delaying motherhood. Even more euphemistically a child's ball bounces down the steps - a childhood denied? Sally emerges, fur-coatless, cold and now one assumes, soon to be bereft of the growing life within her. This was a tiny part of Cabaret's narrative. It is the spine of Mike Leigh's latest multi-BAFTA nominated low budget master-class in screen acting and deceptively simple narrative. I think Mike Leigh and Harvey Weinstein really ought to take a meeting. And then I think Mike should decline any offer and have a serious word with Scorsese.

Abortion, by its own or any other name, does not normally align itself with box office gold. This is why we need outsiders like Mike Leigh. A film with no discernible 'inciting incident' and subsequent three-act structure does not ache to play well in world multiplexing itself into homogenisation. This is why we need Mike Leigh. This is a cinema experience with one laugh, many smiles but mostly it illustrates a grim working class life in post war London. It's late 1950 and the alien world that Britons enjoyed after the war is only alien to us now because, despite the news, we have moved on. Reminding us of this is Mike Leigh. That is why we need Mike Leigh.

Vera Drake is an extraordinary film for its mere, albeit celebrated, ordinariness. A middle-aged woman is a social rock in her community helping everyone needing help. Her car mechanic husband toils honestly by day while her spiv-like but devoted son and her round-shouldered and chronically shy daughter are good natured fixtures of home life. Lillie, a friend and in effect Vera's 'pimp', is making very good money exploiting Vera's talents as a morally inspired guardian of young women's lives. She does what someone once did for her. She performs abortions, 'helping out' young women. She is caught, tried and sentenced. There is no 'movie' character arc. There is no audience-pleasing last minute melodramatic twist. There is a woman believing herself to be doing good in a world where that good is simply unlawful, like not believing in God in the 17th century (where without appeal, you got executed unless you could prove you were really unwell). Haven't we come on!

We live in a country where the law is often proved albeit inconclusively to be an ass. As human beings, we get ourselves into situations that the law cannot apply itself to or the current laws do not know how to interpret certain actions and therefore with no precedents, the law either harshly punishes or leniently discharges. There is a law against suicide here in the UK. Let that sink in. Kill yourself and you're in a world of trouble… Are there lawyers in heaven? I should think not. The practical reality of this would make trying those cases particularly unpleasant. But top of the moral agenda in Mike Leigh's fascinating Vera Drake is not the question of whether she should 'help the young women' or not. The abortion debate is not fuelled by the movie. I would imagine, given all sorts of different personal circumstances, we all have our singular opinions. But Vera Drake is not about moral choices. It's about the disintegration of a family based on choices made by the lead character. And possibly even above that, it's about a culture, a human society based on rules, class divides and cups of tea, miraculous healing liquids that seem to attend to any ill.

This is a world (a very real one lived in by a sizeable proportion of those still alive today) in which certain truths were self-evident. Forgive me if this list offends but in 1950 they were undeniably true.

    1. Women cooked, cleaned and looked after men's domestic needs.
    2. Men worked at 'proper' jobs and a percentage of their pay was named 'housekeeping'.
    3. Men asked girl's fathers for permission to marry.
    4. Men and women knew their place.
    5. EVERYONE seemed to smoke.
    6. NO-ONE seemed to be particularly well educated when it came to unwanted pregnancies...

And worst of all you were judged constantly by your behaviour, the cleanliness of your home, the success of your offspring and the perceived common wisdom of decorum being more important than happiness. It is this groundswell of opinion that Vera falls foul of. Despite her loving family's support (even the rigidly black and white espousing son comes to forgive his mother), Vera is thrust into a post-arrest world where things are black and white and no ghosts from the past will stand up and acknowledge that her actions saved lives, lives living rather than the organic spark just brought into being destined to be plunged into misery because of certain circumstances.

We are spared very little (gynaecologically speaking Vera Drake is not explicit but the acting is so good across the board that it may as well be) and the business of home termination is presented as matter of factly as a kettle boiling (the first procedure incidentally). Vera remains curiously aloof from her emotionally wrought patients. Imelda Staunton (whose movie this is as she dominates, giving her all to this pathetic creature) is a benevolent aunt who knows why these girls cannot afford in every sense to have a child. She wants to, almost desperately needs to, offer more but knows the role of fairy godmother well. She wafts in, pinny on, does the job, explains in simple terms what will happen next and reluctantly disappears letting the emotional impact of her actions sink in.

Leigh is never without social comment. In a clever piece of screenwriting, Vera's sister-in-law is harassing her husband for a £35 pound washing machine (high tech in 1950, one assumes so now we know the value of 1950's £35). In a parallel story line (which does not touch Vera's story at all only to offer 'the other side' so to speak), we meet Miss Wells, a fragile upper middle class girl who is raped in a scene that should be hard to watch - it is. Sally Hawkins' performance (as Susan Wells) is as strong in a supporting role as any nominated actress this year. Of course she falls pregnant and goes the 'official' monied way - doctor first, specialist next (who offers his service for a staggering 200 guineas after asking for £250 - that's over seven washing machines and 125 times what Vera's 'fixer' charges). And eventually she is forced to see a psychiatrist. This is a world where the mere thought of such a dark and self-defeating route to good health was met with severe social opprobrium. The psychiatrist, in a dimly lit, old fashioned study, places his fingers in a steeple thrust out in front of him appearing as a steam train with a cow buffer should any of the unreal madness he encounters actually make contact with him. He is as sympathetic as a bullet. Miss Wells' predicament is certainly different by simple expedient of class. What she is paying through the nose for, Vera does for nothing.

It's only when one of the hundreds she has helped shows complications causing her admittance to hospital and a brush with death, does the law very easily close in. At the happiest double celebration for the Drakes, the inspector calls. It is when Vera's world collapses that Staunton grasps this simple movie and shakes it raw. By the sheer power of the close up (an actor's secret weapon so sparingly applied in the previous hour and ten minutes) Staunton gives us an intimate and powerful study of disintegration. Here is a woman who cannot live in 'their' world, the world of suffering for the sake of law and polarised moral conscience. Her family, naturally, are dumbstruck and the hurt and confusion etched on these characters' faces is never questioned. Their authenticity is beyond reproach.

For all the apparent simplicity of Leigh's script and direction, he is anchoring us to the world of the real (in dramatic terms) in very subtle ways. Vera lives in small rooms and enclosed spaces make up a large percentage of her domestic life. When she's in open and airy and light spaces, she's on her knees scrubbing floors… Leigh's camera movements are minimal and necessary when employed, his editing, invisible, his (and by implication his crew's) craft, impeccable.

In 1996 I was lucky enough to attend the BAFTA Craft awards and was there to see Leigh accept his 1995 Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema. (He had been nominated twice before (in '92 for the short A Sense of History and in the following year, Naked was nominated for the Alexander Korda award). I do not have a copy of his speech in front of me and can only paraphrase. Leigh accepted graciously and remarked that despite his pleasure of receiving this prestigious award, he was a little mystified that none of his technicians, producers or actors had ever won a BAFTA on one his films… It was a gentle nip at the claw that feeds him but once again, that is why we need Mike Leigh.

Secrets and Lies won the Alexander Korda BAFTA Award the following year. Don't you love politics?

Vera Drake

Zealand 2004
125 mins
Mike Leigh
Simon Channing-Williams
Mike Leigh
Dick Pope
Jim Clark
Andrew Dickson
production design
Eve Stewart
Imelda Staunton
Richard Graham
Eddie Marsan
Anna Keaveney
Alex Kelly
Daniel Mays
Philip Davis
Lesley Manville
review posted
3 February 2004