One of the world’s most assured filmmakers, Mike Leigh’s new film is yet another foray into period-piece filmmaking, after 1999’s Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy. Eschewing that film’s fin-de-siecle giddiness, Vera Drake is a piercing study set in post-World War II Britain. Taking place in 1950, amid the struggling underclass, this is a gritty, humane look at the world in which Leigh (born in 1943) grew up. The film’s first half settles on the busy domestic life of the title character, an impish and cheery middle-aged Brit played by veteran stage actress Imelda Staunton. Vera divides her time between cleaning the homes of London’s upper crust and dutifully acting as caregiver to the many working-class shut-ins who were left incapacitated by the German bombing raids on London.
Dedicating the film to his parents, Leigh focuses on the close-knit Drake family, which is rounded out by Vera’s auto mechanic husband George (Richard Graham), daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) and son Sid (Daniel Mays, All or Nothing). Vera is quick to share whatever meager scraps they have with those around her; opening her home to a lonely neighbor (Phil Davis) even provides Ethel with a husband.Leigh’s films have always thrived on a particularly edgy kind of Cockney claustrophobia, usually centered on the volatility of families thrown together in hard-scrabble living conditions.But Vera Drake foregrounds a warmth, a sense of harmony, in kith and in kin, that is often buried amid the kitchen-sink miseries of his films. Credit, as usual, goes as much to the director as to his cast, with whom he collaborates on the script, and while this may be Leigh’s schematic feature, it’s also one of his most gracefully affecting.
With its grimy cold-water flat setting and domestic issue undertones, Vera Drake makes its case as a class-based melodrama.And it is, after a fashion, though of a different sort than it first appears.Vera, it seems, has one additional task that she often performs while making house calls in her neighborhood—one which the decorous Drake can only describe as “helping young girls out.”In one of the film’s many carefully observed period details, we are privy to several of Vera’s meetings with Lily (played by Leigh regular Ruth Sheen), where the name and address of a young girl is exchanged for a week’s ration of sugar.
Leigh cross-cuts between Vera’s visits to young women, in which she sets them at ease with a cup of tea, and the hushed, clinical abortion the wealthy daughter of one of Vera’s employers procures.In doing so, he not only captures Britain’s rigid class distinctions of the time, but also the cold paternalism of its health care system. Still, the film never tips its hand towards proto-feminist anachronism: Drake is less crusader for these procedures than a neighborhood Jane-of-all-trades who prefers the hands-on approach of tea and sympathy to, as she puts it, “set things right.”
With its titular heroine and its concern for a woman going against the law, Vera Drake seems modeled after the women’s weepie of the thirties and forties, such as Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce. Leigh shoots his protagonist in devastating close-up; the scene where the police inspectors come to her house for questioning ends on an almost interminable shot of Vera’s face, as she realizes for the first time how differently the law defines what she does.Staunton’s performance steers the film past the pitfalls of the average “message” movie and into the realm of truly moving art.In so doing, she helps Mike Leigh make his best film since 1996’s Secrets & Lies.