Film Diary: Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004)

Monday, 5 May 2008

Vera Drake

I have a funny feeling I’ve already done this one, but never mind because it’s a film that can bear it.

The Drakes are a salt-of-the-earth working-class London family, making the best of post-war austerity and playing the system when they can to keep afloat. At their centre, binding them all together, is Vera the matriarch. Vera isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer but her heart is huge. Vera has time for everybody; as well as cleaning for the middle-classes she looks after her elderly mother and the disabled man across the landing, invites a gawky young neighbour for his meals, and through all this maintains the kind of sunny disposition that holds everything together. She’s so trusting that she can’t see the sinister side of her blackmarketing friend Lily, for whom she runs a sideline: she helps out young girls who’ve got themselves into trouble, and doesn’t think of asking for a penny for her services. (Lily, meanwhile, is fleecing the clients and keeping the proceeds for herself.) Abortion is illegal of course, but for those like the daughter of one of Vera’s cleaning clients with the odd hundred guineas to spare – a huge sum in 1959 – something can be arranged through the respectable medical establishment and nobody will ask too many questions. But when something goes wrong in Vera’s world, the roof falls in. What’s really heartrending is that the roof falls just at the moment when the Drakes are at their most together, celebrating the engagement of daughter Ethel to gawky neighbour Reg. From there, as the awfulness of Vera’s secret sinks in, the family disintegrates.

Years ago, the BBC excelled at showing this kind of thing on prime-time television. Drama that challenges, makes you feel uncomfortable; raises questions, changes the world. Mike Leigh cut his teeth on Play For Today – it’s where Abigail’s Party first appeared. We’ve almost lost that strand of drama now, except that we have films like this to keep it alive. It’s not a comfortable, feel-good film. It’s certainly not, as some pundits have suggested, pro-abortion propaganda because there’s nothing glamorous about Vera’s operation, beyond her sunny disposition making it just about bearable for the desperate. It is a drama of desperation though, and as such it’s agonising to watch. Imelda Staunton puts in what has to be one of the great performances ever (and how did she fail to get the Oscar that year? Well, that says more about the Oscars than about Imelda) – her fall expressed brilliantly in almost wordless facial contortions. And Mike Leigh is a genius who ought to be appreciated far more than he is. There’s not a shot wasted here. Though there is a score it’s used sparingly and appropriately, and Leigh as much as anybody knows how to use silence to stretch the nerves to screaming point.

This is certainly amongst the great films of the twenty-first century so far.

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2 Responses to “Film Diary: Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004)”

  1. Diane/tvor Says:

    I agree with you. It was an astonishingly good film. I do find most of Leigh’s films very good. Have you ever reviewed Secrets and Lies?

  2. Peter Says:

    A good film, and perhaps a little more “directed” than his earlier work. Not necessarily any the worse for that, but (like High Hopes) less characteristic of his style and methodology. Coming to it with no advance info you wouldn’t automatically identify it as a Mike Leigh film, I feel.


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