Vera Drake (12A)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner20/10/2004

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 125 mins

Impressively directed, heart-breaking drama with a stunning central performance by Imelda Staunton.

Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, deservedly won the prestigious Golden Lion award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival this year, as well as scooping Best Actress for Imelda Staunton. As such, it’s a fitting choice to open the London Film Festival, before it receives a nationwide release early next year.

Postwar London And Backstreet Abortions

The film is set in postwar London, in 1950. Imelda Staunton plays Vera Drake, a respectable working-class housewife who also works as a cleaning woman. As well as looking after her own family (stoical husband Phil Davis and adult children Alex Kelly and Daniel Mays), Vera also dedicates her life to caring for others – she makes daily visits to both her lonely mother and various sickly shut-ins.

However, unbeknownst to her family, Vera has a secret life, performing regular backstreet abortions, arranged by her childhood friend Lily (Ruth Sheen).

Vera doesn’t want payment (although Lily sneakily accepts it and doesn’t tell her) and feels no guilt about what she does – to her, she is merely “helping out young girls in trouble”. But when one abortion goes wrong, Vera is arrested and her life comes crashing down around her.

Imelda Staunton is astonishing in the lead role. Relentlessly cheerful, she’s the sort of person for whom nothing is so bad that it can’t be resolved with a nice cup of tea. This is what makes her arrest so powerful – suddenly Vera is stopped in her tracks and Leigh includes a long, heart-breaking close-up of her face as it slowly dawns on her how much trouble she’s got herself into. Even then, Vera is so full of human decency that she’s more upset that one of her patients almost died than for herself.

The supporting cast are also excellent, particularly Leigh regular Phil Davis and Eddie Marsan as Reg, the painfully shy would-be suitor to Vera’s withdrawn daughter. There’s also a somewhat Dickensian cameo by an almost unrecognisable Jim Broadbent as the judge.

Emotionally Devastating

Though the main story is emotionally devastating, there are moments of genuine warmth and gentle humour in the film, including the cinema’s least romantic (and yet still oddly moving) proposal scene. This also serves as a subtle counterpoint to the main drama, because it illustrates the characters’ reticence to talk about anything remotely sex-related and heightens the impact that Vera’s arrest has on her family.

The production design is striking. Leigh presents a portrait of postwar London that is stripped of bright colours but still somehow beautiful; some of the shots are truly breath-taking. He also uses an incredibly minimalist soundtrack – it’s quite possibly the quietest film you’ll see all year.

To sum up, Vera Drake is a beautifully designed, impressively directed film with a devastating central performance by Staunton. It’s quite possibly Mike Leigh’s best film since Naked, which also makes it one of the best British films of the year. Recommended (although perhaps not at £25 for the opening night LFF screening – catch the afternoon screening the next day instead).

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Vera Drake (12A)
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Content updated: 18/10/2017 15:42

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