The project of a life time, writer-director Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner opened to much acclaim. The project of a life-time, the reflecting on past works seems worthwhile. Secrets and Lies (1996) would be the obvious choice: much-loved work also featuring Timothy Spall (the titular J.M.W). However, in this Rewind here I want to focus on Vera Drake. For those seeking justification, Leigh’s most recent film is centers on an artist and his approach. Therefore, in anticipation of the bio-pic, it seems right to examine the Leigh corpus in similar terms, and Vera’s story is perfect. Mandatory spoiler alerts apply.
Vera Drake is an unassuming woman in mid-life. Married, dowdy, middle-age, ministering to all, Vera Drake cuts an unprepossessing silhouette. She lives a close-knit life among her family, respected and well-liked. However, Vera, unknown to all, assists in cases of unwanted/ unplanned pregnancies of local working class women located by friend Lily (Ruth Sheen). Eventually one of Vera’s girls is rushed to hospital, almost dying. Shortly thereafter, Vera is arrested. It is easy to see why the role is held as ‘career changing’ for Imelda Stanunton. The physical transformation is apparent at the films opening (watch any interview with Staunton and the words dowdy and unprepossessing don’t spring to mind), but when Vera is revealed she is rendered frail by the sudden weight of condemnation beset her.
By now the methodology of Mike Leigh is not perhaps well-known so much as well mythologised. At the start of a project there is a premise that is refined and expanded by a series of improvisations out of which will emerge a script prior to shooting. The effect of the process is clear in the arrest: an interrupted improvisation, where the shock is visceral. Indeed, Mark Lawson credits Eddie Marsan with having said that until he saw the film, he did not know it was about an abortionist (admittedly a term by which Vera does not call herself).
However, the success of the film is more than the working methods and the verisimilitude they confer upon the project. Like the barrister at Vera’s trial, the film does not attempt to valorise or demonise but present the facts of the matter so as they might speak for themselves. The detachment is complimented by the photography; film is shot is a manner that is telling in how unfussy it is. Granted, Vera is morally self-assured and moreover is sympathetic in her actions, but the film does not take sides. As in all her undertakings, Vera is moved by a desire to be helpful.
Even so, one could not call or tar the film as relativist, any more than one could call him didactic. Set against Vera is Susan (Sally Hawkins), a girl who falls pregnant as the result of rape. While traumatised, Susan has the means to procure an abortion safely. Vera’s girls cannot afford their children nor the cost of a medical termination. They are already in dire straits they turn to Vera. A group concentrated in desperate circumstances some will turn to desperate undertakings. At the same time, Vera acts without full knowledge of what she does, thereby endangers those she assists.
Leigh refuses to tell you what to think, but as a viewer/ an audience thinking is something demanded of you. Put another way, the film does not take a position so much as confer upon those watching the responsibility of taking a position.
Alongside those just mentioned, are an ensemble cast that is also impressive including, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Jim Broadbent and Philip Davis. All establish onscreen chemistry that is compelling from start til finish.
A powerful and a necessary film 9/10