Starring: Imelda Staunton, Philip Davis, Peter Wight, Adrian Scarborough, Heather Craney, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly Sally Hawkins, and Jim Broadbent
Director: Mike Leigh
Writing Credits: Mike Leigh
Distributor: Fine Line Features (US 2004)
Rated: R for depiction of strong thematic material

Mike Leigh, England's most eloquent voice of social disparity, has developed an international following without compromising his politics...not a small accomplishment in our entertainment-obsessed world. He is, to put it crassly, a social egalitarian with market share. Perhaps these twin pressures of message and salability are what make his latest film, VERA DRAKE, so confounding and frustrating. For much of it is very, very good: with an important story to tell -- of the economic and legal divides which drove women in the 1950's to underground abortion providers -- the film has a firm foundation underneath its compelling family drama, torn apart by a mother's secret decision "to help young girls out." Even with this solid foundation, however, Leigh seemingly cannot resist the pulpy histrionics of lesser filmmakers; as the film proceeds to its final conclusion, VERA DRAKE wallows fatally in its own tragic sadness, drowning and damaging its moral and ethical punch.

This is not the first time that Leigh has shot himself in the foot. His films have always been sporadic in quality, with fewer hits (Secrets and Lies) than misses (Naked). Particularly when dealing with emotional expressiveness, the writer/director has found himself at a loss; his drama about opera's legendary Gilbert and Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy, tried desperately to avoid the subject altogether. (That was opera, mind you.) In VERA DRAKE, he is blessed to have a superior actress of extraordinary ability in the title role: Imelda Staunton, a titan of London's West End only known to U.S. audiences from supporting roles in Shakespeare in Love and Sense and Sensibility. Staunton has already won the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival for VERA DRAKE (the film won top honors, too), and it is easy to see why. Staunton gives the preternaturally perky Vera a life that brims with detail: whether humming quietly to herself as she cleans the houses of rich women or taking care of her ailing neighbors, there is no problem that can't be solved by a kettle of tea and a biscuit or two. Vera delights in her husband and children; the Drake family is incredibly close and, despite little in the way of money, they greatly enjoy their lives together. Vera's unspoken secret is that she has, for more years that she can remember, delivered abortions to poor women who cannot afford a real doctor. In this task, we see Vera's true strengths emerge -- her implacable goodness and calming demeanor combats the terror and overwhelming pain of this most intimately terrifying situation. When Vera suggests that she is "helping girls out," she is telling the more ways that one. Vera exemplifies the unspoken communality that exists between women, and confronts the repressive social climate that typified the 1950's in regard to female sexuality.

Leigh finds something almost lyrical in VERA DRAKE, a stark, well-structured composition of daily life. As Vera's secret is inevitably found out, however, Leigh's film takes a drastic turn for the worse. VERA DRAKE begins to noticeably drag, indulging in painfully long bouts of sobbing emotionality as Vera's gentle happiness shatters into pieces. What had been a nuanced and revealing glimpse into a serious situation settles for TV-movie-of-the-week dramatics in its final half-hour, concluding with an obvious and desperate courtroom sequence that gorges on its clichés with a pornographic fervor. It is as if Leigh, after a charming and marvelous first half, decided that one should never use a feather to communicate social ills when a jackhammer is available.

The filmmaker's trademark concerns of class, race and economics make appearances in VERA DRAKE to varying degrees...a black woman briefly appears as one of Vera's charges, and an extended sequence about washing machines and televisions, greedily desired by Vera's sister-in-law, underscores London's burgeoning rampant capitalism in broad strokes. Still, if one chooses to visit the world Leigh has created, it will be for Vera, and the stunning, Oscar-worthy performance of Staunton. Both the character and the characterization are revelatory, and even if Leigh drifts off course, we can be incredibly thankful that Staunton does not. VERA DRAKE is a mixed bag, but Vera herself is a dazzling sight to behold.

-- Gabriel Shanks

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