Vera Drake
directed by Mike Leigh
(Fine Line, 2004)

It seems quite unbelievable to discover that this film almost wasn't completed due to a lack of funding. Thankfully, producer Simon Channing-Williams saved the day, and in doing so he helped give us a piece of evocative and moving drama for our screens.

The story takes place in the working-class London of 1950s England. The film centers around Vera Drake, a middle-aged woman who divides her time between serving as a cleaner for the upperclass and caring for sick family and friends. As a member of the audience, you're also taken on a journey through Vera's life at home and the secret life she leads visiting women, helping them induce miscarriages for unwanted pregnancies.

Vera's a kind-hearted woman, always doting on others and never thinking of herself. Indeed, this secret life she leads is nothing more than routine to her, another way of helping others. However, when something goes drastically wrong and involves the authorities, Vera's safe little world begins to fall apart.

Imelda Staunton gives a powerful performance, playing Vera with such genuine emotion that I found myself honestly believing in the naivety of the character. Phil Davis is equally brilliant at playing her husband Stan; he particularly excels towards the end of the film as he conveys the shock and upset of a loving husband kept in the dark. There are some truly gritty moments between Vera and her son Sid, played by Daniel Mays. Daniel is most entertaining as the joker Sid and even more convincing when he comes to portray a son who feels wronged by the iniquities of his mother.

It's difficult to review this film without mentioning the acting talents of all the characters involved, particularly those that play Vera's family. Like every Mike Leigh film, there is some subtly witty dialogue that, given the right pauses and comic timing, ends up hilariously effective. Reg and Ethel, Vera's daughter and Stan's friend, are especially amusing and endearing to watch mostly down to the simpleton behaviour portrayed by the skilled actors in Eddie Marsan and Alex Kelly.

Mike Leigh both wrote and directed this film, and some are calling it his best work to date. Indeed, BAFTA has already recognized this, awarding Leigh a Best Director trophy and giving Best Actress to Staunton. Leigh writes with such honesty and reality that you feel as if you are in the room sitting next to his characters, having tea with them and laughing with them. He makes you experience every pain his characters go through when they're suffering and every joy they have when they're celebrating. Leigh delivers his actors with a real world to exist in and with his exceptional writing it's easy for them to imagine these lives realistically.

The haunting music created by Andrew Dickinson (Secrets & Lies, Naked) is a perfect bittersweet soundtrack. It definitely hints of sadness and hangs over the character as she walks us through her story. Only Mike Leigh could write such an innocent woman who ends up soaked in her own guilt, yet we leave the cinema believing she is still innocent. I hesitate to use the overplayed word "genius," but it's hard not to with this film.

- Rambles
written by Jo Overfield
published 26 March 2005

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