Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 07, 2004 4:39 pm 
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Subtle miniatures that deliver a wallop

Since he moved from TV to film in the late Eighties Mike Leigh hasn’t made a single movie that wasn’t worth seeing, and Vera Drake, a period piece about a housecleaner who goes to jail in 1950 for “helping girls out when they’re in trouble,” continues his run of high quality work. In a sense Vera Drake is "Masterpiece Theater" for the liberal left. It’s full of English reserve and costume-conscious production values and features a uniformly excellent, selfless cast, but like Leigh’s films with contemporary settings (and unlike his 1999 Gilbert and Sullivan drama Topsy Turvy) it focuses primarily on moral issues and the dilemmas of the urban poor. The result is a quiet but thought-provoking triumph where all the elements -- acting, setting, editing -- are immaculate and the tidy resulting package delivers a surprisingly powerful emotional wallop along with its social message and its history lesson.

As we observe Vera (Imelda Staunton, superb in her role) bustling about every day in her neighborhood to cheer up invalids and her aged mother after polishing brass and floors for city toffs, we realize she’s bent on “helping” others at every level. She calls everyone "dear," even the cops who interrogate her at the end. There’s something both saintly and blind about her relentless kindness. Arguably she has a childish mind that’s incapable of seeing the shallowness of her do-gooding -- or the evil of her childhood friend Lily (Ruth Sheen) who sets up her “helping” jobs for her own gain. That her “service” for women with unwanted pregnancies is done for free is selfless on Vera's part, but also stupid: how can she not know after years of this that Lily's pocketing the cash?

At first what we see of Vera’s daily kindnesses around the neighborhood goes no further than tucking in the covers and putting the kettle on. Vera’s not one of those façade-only types who’s nice to everybody on the outside but cold at home. She’s as sweet with her car mechanic husband Stan (Phil Davis), who has a garage he owns with his brother, and to her son and daughter at their convivial dinners as she is with the invalids she visits. But she seems to accept the fact that despite her daily tidy-ups, her mother’s festering in a deep depression. Can’t she see that her gestures away from home may not be very effective?

The stolid but cheerful Vera lacks the imagination or wit to focus her moral impulses in more profound or sensible directions. That’s how she’s gotten into causing miscarriages for those girls “in trouble” using grated carbolic soap, hot water, disinfectant, and a syringe, a simple but nonetheless risky technique she learned from having it done on herself when young.

The movie is a portrait of English muddling through. We hear how uncomplainingly individuals got through the war, and we see how Vera’s terribly shy, mousy daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) finds an equally shy, mousy fiancé, Reg (Eddie Marsan). They would be pathetic if they weren’t so sweet. Sometimes Leigh seems to be playing in a life-sized dollhouse with toys he loves, but is slightly distanced from. Yet that distance is what allows for such a keen observation of English life.

As the movie shows, it’s oppression by men that’s the overall problem. While watching Vera’s “treatments” one after another, we also observe how the homely upper-class daughter of a family she works for is “date raped” by a brutish young man, made pregnant, and forced to get an abortion. Her solution is the more posh, protected – and presumably safer -- one with Harley Street physicians who know how to make it legal and send her to a discreet, tidy clinic out of town. This young woman, who pays fifty times what the poor girls do, is able to conceal the event from her mother and looks rather pleased with herself when she’s back from her “weekend” (no doubt it's the bravest thing she's ever done), but whether or not she realizes it she too has been humiliated in more ways than one.

Ultimately Vera Drake is an indictment of the English society of its time, not of Vera. Vera is trapped in the moral ambiguity of a world that forces its poorer victims to break the law. She’s “helping” women to survive an unfair system, but she's also both performing an illegal act and endangering the women’s lives. It’s when one almost dies that doctors force the young woman's mother to reveal Vera’s identity and that of the unscrupulous Lily. We may be invited to regard all this as a holdover from morally dubious, but often necessary, wartime survival strategies: we see the trading of stockings and cigarettes and tea still going on, both as conducted by Lily and in a scene of Vera’s dashing haberdashery-store worker son Sid (Daniel Mays) in a pub. It’s this son who turns against Vera when she’s caught. But his father talks the young man into forgiveness. That too is a sign of survival instincts, as well as love: they all pull together.

Leigh uses a rather realistic kind of “method” acting. His players work improvising in character for weeks before shooting till they wear mannerisms, dress, accents as well as personalities and attitudes with ease. He shoots a lot of footage and then edits masterfully. Vera Drake is a wonder of economy and detail. The filmmakers’ sense of structure and exposition is acute. Despite its relatively chaotic plot, All or Nothing had a powerful emotional finale; Vera Drake has an extremely intense last chapter and yet never falters in its cool presentation of the facts, which is aided by the police interrogation, courtroom, and prison scenes.

As in Secrets and Lies, Leigh stages a climactic, intense final social gathering. The law comes for Vera when her family is gathered for a party in their little house. Her own family, husband’s partner and brother, his wife, and her daughter’s fiancé are all present to celebrate the engagement, so the shock and embarrassment couldn’t be greater when the police arrive. Imelda Staunton fairly implodes. Perhaps the most moving moment is when Frank, Vera’s husband, and his brother embrace. It’s then that it’s clear how shattered this little society is by what has come down. Whether or not Vera is guilty – and she uncomplainingly accepts her fate – those around her are innocent, and they know absolutely nothing about what Vera’s been doing for decades. (Her relationship with her husband has been superficial in this, that she has not shared such an important part of her life.) But they must all suffer a far more damaging and long-lasting humiliation than the homely rich girl who went off to the clinic.

Vera goes to jail. We learn that there are other women there for the same offense, who've used more dangerous methods, repeated the crime, and gotten longer sentences. In the final scene, Stan and Sid and the others are sitting around at home, miserable without Vera at their center. The family has been torn apart. So Leigh ends one of his best-constructed films.

©Chris Knipp 2004

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