Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Mike Leigh
Stars: Imelda Staunton, Phil Drake, Peter Wright, Heather Craney, Adrian Scarborough, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Ruth Sheen.
Mike Leigh returns to the socially realistic dramas with which he is synonymous with Vera Drake, a bleak and emotionally devastating drama about abortion, that is also one of his best films for quite some time.
Set in the austere post-war period of 1950’s London, the film centres around the diminutive Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton), a kindly and bustling cleaning lady who lovingly raises her family and helps out her neighbours and friends with little chores. She tries to play matchmaker, pairing her shy and plain daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) with the lonely neighbour Reg (Eddie Marsan). But she also has a secret sideline in conducting abortions for young girls who find themselves “in trouble” who cannot afford to seek help legally through the hypocritical system. But when one of her patients suffers complications and almost dies, Vera’s activities come to the attention of the police. Her arrest and subsequent trial put pressure on her normally close knit family as they weather the storm.
Leigh uses this plot device to examine the morals of the time, and exposes some of the complex issues in the abortion debate. There’s plenty of food for thought here, and Leigh forces audiences to re-evaluate their own moral judgements and preconceptions. As usual, Leigh explores issues of class and social status, family relationships. He also has a fine eye for period detail, and grimy backstreets and tenements of 1950’s London seems flawless. Leigh subtly and superbly draws a vivid contrast between the houses of Vera and her loving family, which are dark and cramped, yet full of love, and those of the wealthy, which are spacious and colourful, yet devoid of love and intimacy and real communication. Even in the midst of the grim events depicted here, Leigh manages to find moments of genuine warmth and humour.
All of the performances from the ensemble cast, many of hwom have worked with Leigh in the past, ring true. But driving the emotional heart of the film is Staunton’s rich, powerful and perfectly pitched performance, which is unbearably affecting and touching. It has already deservedly garnered her the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival among other awards, and stands her in good stead come Oscar time.