Vera Drake, the latest film from Mike Leigh has one crucial problem – poor time management. The film sets out with two key tasks, but in its 125 mins manages to convince only on the first objective.
Where the film succeeds, brilliantly, is in the visual creation of a post war 1950s London. It would be easy to simply recreate the costumes of the 1950s and allow that to set the scene for the viewer, but Leigh chooses instead to methodically recreate the period. For example, one can’t help but be struck by the amount of smoking that goes on in the film, with cigarettes being swapped ritually after dinner in the Drake household. The cars, the clothes, the hair styles all take us back to a decade which to a certain extent has disappeared from history, having neither the blood and guts of the WWII or the sex of the swinging sixties.
It’s vital that Leigh creates this sense of history, and of strangeness, as the core of his plot is about a backstreet abortionist – something seemingly unimaginable in Britain fifty years on (though the film was launched in America in October when there was much talk about countering Roe vs Wade).
Imelda Staunton won the prize for best actress at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and she’s a dominating presence in the film, but unfortunately her character just doesn’t add up. She is a relentlessly good humoured, chattering, tea making, good samaritan who lives for her family and counts her blessings nightly alongside her decent husband. She works as a cleaning lady, and constantly performs little acts of charity (though how charitable it is to invade, as she does, an invalid’s flat forcing him to be cheery and drink endless cups of tea, one wonders?). One of her regular merciful deeds though is 'helping girls when they get into trouble’. She, for twenty years we learn, has carried out back street abortions. The drama of the story unfolds when one of the girls she helps almost dies and the police are called in. In interrogation Vera breaks down, and with an impressive show of tears and quivering lip, manages to make everyone from the Police through to the audience feel terrible for her – hence the best actress award and talk of Oscar nominations. What Leigh and Staunton don’t do though, at any stage, is give us any real idea as to why she does this work, and how she feels about it. There is the suggestion that she has had an abortion herself, but if this is the case she’s remarkably flippant about the whole thing – casually taking appointments here and there, telling the girls that they’ll feel a bit of pain “down there”, and that after that everything will be right as rain.
Leigh is well within his rights to portray a sympathetic abortionist, as he pointed out in interview “She is doing something that thousands of people, mostly women, in all societies in all times have done.
There has always been someone to go to in order to solve that problem”. The problem isn’t a moral one for this reviewer, but rather a dramatic one. He has failed to add depth to her character – by making her such a saint, he has reduced the credibitlity of the story, and our interest in the moral questions at the heart of the story.
As if worried by the saintly portrayal of Vera, Leigh introduces the thorougly reprehensible character of Lily, played brilliantly by Ruth Sheen,who arranges the 'appointments’ for Vera, and takes payment – implausibly none of which makes its way to Vera. With all the emphasis on Leigh’s method, of endless improvisations with the actors, did no-one ever question why Vera takes no payment at any stage, for example for her own costs? The film would have been better served had there been some combination of the characters of Lily and Vera, because in their one dimensional portrayal of good and bad they deny the film dramatic credibility.
Critics will argue, as usual with Leigh, about the class politics in the film. Certainly there is much working class bonhomie in evidence while most of the middle/upper class characters come across as shallow and materialistic. There’s one memorable scene where Vera is preparing a well to do girl for her abortion, and is offered a Martini, which she rightly passes on in favour of a nice cup of tea. At the same time, one of the most moving subplots of the film is that of a rich girl who is callously raped by a family approved suitor, and ends up pregnant. She does serve though as a way of showing the class divide in terms of abortion at the time – she ends up going to a private clinic where she’s taken excellent care of, while the girls Vera deals have their wombs pumped with a soapy solution(Medically inaccurate according to a midwife writing in the Guardian, who claims that the method depicted would have almost invariably have caused death).
The cast all turn in impressive performances, with plenty of interesting subplots. Eddie Marsan is particularly impressive as the shell shocked Reg, who through the matchmaking fussing of Vera is brought into the family to marry the equally shy Ethel. The recreation of a generation that had witnessed unimaginable bloodshed and violence, and yet shyly couldn’t talk about matters of the heart let alone of lust is fascinating.
Like an overeager student rattling off reams on his first question leaving scant time to finish the rest, Leigh has created a beautiful and detailed film but sadly forgotten to include his main character.