Vera Drake

Mike Leigh's Vera Drake is a quiet but impressive film with a standout lead performance.

By Gareth Buckell

Mike Leigh’s critique of the post-war failure to break down Britain’s solidly entrenched class structure unfolds both close to and miles away from the centres of power. Set in the 1950s, Vera Drake immediately draws us into working-class life, as may be expected from a director who, the idiosyncratic Topsy Turvy (1999) apart, has focused very much on ‘ordinary’ working-class and lower middle-class citizens.

‘Ordinary’ because, as suggested by the title, the eponymous heroine is anything but. Pulling together a close-knit family in a cramped Islington flat, Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) performs makeshift abortions – or ‘helps out girls in trouble’ – free of charge, unbeknown to her husband and children. However, Vera is unaware of the actions of those around her, too: Lily, an acquaintance who puts pregnant girls in touch with Mrs Drake, charges the young women without Vera’s knowledge, a betrayal that proves to be her undoing.

Leigh’s focus is on the small Drake family unit, and is concentrated upon Vera: Staunton carries the film through an impressive range of understated emotional expression, captured through a range of televisual close-ups and medium shots of vera taking on domestic duties without complaint. The Drake family are presented as typical working-class londoners of the age: Sid (Daniel Mays), Vera’s son, is disgusted when he hears of his mother’s illicit operations, but his anger seems clichéd, setting up the moral counterpoint offered by Vera’s husband Stan (Phil Davis) a touch too obviously.

Vera Drake is at its strongest when staunton is in camera, as she is for most of the film. Her performance is dignified and, above all, subtle; the scenes in which the squalid, desperate – yet generous – service offered by Vera is contrasted with the experience of Susan Wells, a firmly bourgeois rape victim, feel unnecessary and inconsequential. Susan’s story does not cut into Vera’s: the class contrast is suggested far more effectively when the audience is rooted in the down-to-earth world of the Drake family, and the seemingly arbitrary cuts to Susan’s scenes merely undercut the tension established by the knowledge that the Drake’s enjoyment of life under testing circumstances is about to be irreparably destroyed.

Vera Drake is a quiet but angry film, far removed from the emotional intensity of All Or Nothing (2002). And if the opening scenes of the Drake family opening the front door with a key kept under the doormat and going indoors for tea together invoke sentimental nostalgia in older viewers, the spare, unflinching scenes dealing with Vera’s arrest and her family’s collapse have entirely undermined it by the time the black screen closes the film, leaving the characters (and the audience) with no recourse against the social structures that have conspired against the altruistic heroine.

With its ruthless dissection of the British class system, Vera Drake has been acclaimed in Europe – Staunton won best actress and the film took the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, while domestic critics are asking if it is Leigh’s finest work, and discussing it as a political film to rival those of Ken Loach, though in a starkly contrasting fashion. While it conforms in many ways to expectations of a ‘British Film’, it succeeds aesthetically due to the deft economy of its dialogue and camerawork, with the pessimistic ending to the narrative implying hope (as well as a reminder not to be complacent) for an audience who can see how the living conditions for the British working classes have improved in the half-century since Vera Drake is set.
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