Saving 'Drake'

BY ZACH BORDEN
Daily Arts Writer
Published February 8, 2005

Mike Leigh (“Secrets and Lies”) may not yet be a household name, but for the past few decades, he has moved up the ranks of American film, becoming one of the most revered and gifted writer/directors. The British-born filmmaker has proven to be a master storyteller when it comes to the intimate, often focusing in on the English working class and their personal dramas. Leigh’s latest, “Vera Drake,” is a tough and riveting character portrait, featuring all the director’s trademarks, including a troubling resolution that does not offer any easy answers.

Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton, “Sense and Sensibility”) is a cheerful and motherly cleaning woman in early 1950s London, who lives a routine life with her husband and family in a tiny, cramped flat. While her life may appear painfully ordinary, Vera keeps a dangerous secret: She performs illegal abortions for troubled girls in her community. But when one of the women she has helped nearly dies, Vera’s balanced life crumbles the instant a criminal investigation leads right to her front door.

What makes “Vera Drake” such a noteworthy film is the way Leigh balances the story. While a more conventional filmmaker might allow the saga of Vera’s arrest to become needlessly controversial and political, Leigh doesn’t ever let the weighty theme of abortion overshadow Vera’s individual tragedy. The characters are honest with their feelings about abortion, but most of their emotional outbursts result from Vera’s shocking situation. Leigh does not give the story a firm stance on abortion either, but instead wisely chooses to make the film about robust family bonds and unbounded loyalty.

Leigh, who is known to improvise much of the dialogue with his performers, also makes sure the characters stay true to themselves. There are several moments that have the potential to irritate audiences, but instead are taken in much more convincing directions. Ultimately, Leigh achieves a magisterial tone with his story; he puts up harsh ironies and contrasts London’s then-strict laws with human sensibility. Leigh’s assured visual style also adds to the film’s realism; his shots glow with concise details and the dark color scheme emphasizes much of the movie’s seedier undertones.

A cast of British character actors, led by Imelda Staunton, heightens the film’s realism and emotional power. She gives a rich and textured performance perfectly capturing a simple woman whose life and joy is taken from her in an instant. Staunton makes Vera so endearing and warm that it’s impossible not to sympathize with her. The supporting players, particularly the actors who portray Vera’s family, are also excellent as they deal with inner turmoil and tremendous conflict while facing the difficulties of Vera’s situation.

As a character-driven narrative that is poignant and challenging, it’s clear that “Vera Drake” is not a film for everybody. Nonetheless, the film’s emotional core is sincere and resonant and Mike Leigh’s commitment to the tricky material is more than admirable. “Vera Drake” is incredibly satisfying, and Staunton brings a unique power to the title role. And while Leigh has already achieved a very distinguished career as a filmmaker, his latest effort is another exercise in cinematic bliss that truly is one of his best achievements.

Film Review: 4 out of 5 stars