Vera Drake

(2004) **** R
125 min. Fine Line Features. Director: Mike Leigh. Cast: Imelda Staunton, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Adrian Scarborough, Heather Craney.

Director Mike Leigh has become well-known among film enthusiasts for his scrupulous technique. Through close, improvisational collaboration with his casts, Leigh fills out scenarios into life-like representations of people and issues which, if not always set in modern times, speak to today's world. Leigh's latest film, Vera Drake, is a period piece set in 1950 London, but its ire for modern politics and cautionary appeal to today's viewers pulse through the film.

In an exquisite performance Oscar voters would be foolish to overlook, Imelda Staunton plays the title character: a good-hearted woman, matronly but bright, who serves her community with no expectation of compensation. Besides tending to her adoring family, Vera visits shut-ins, befriends the lonely, and, unbeknownst to all but her best friend, "helps girls out" when they find themselves in a spot of trouble. Vera's secret career helping young girls is, in fact, illegal in 1950 England, based on a nearly ninety-year-old mandate. When the long arm of the law comes knocking, Vera's domestic bustle and good cheer are permanently arrested.

The austerity of the film's latter part might seem merely maudlin had Leigh not so carefully established that life goes on in and around the film's central polemic. Against the quivering shame and fear of women in trouble and the edge of despair to black-market dealings in post-war London, Leigh sets sweet romance and causes for celebration in the Drakes' cramped apartment of tea cozies, knitting needles, and floral wallpaper. Though Leigh's interest lies mostly with the Drakes, he pointedly contrasts the vulnerability of the working class to the privilege of the gilded upper class with scenes of cool isolation and museum-like gentility in the well-appointed home which owes its sparkle to Vera's elbow grease.

With deceptive simplicity, Leigh unfolds his story in acute vignettes. Women, across class lines, are vulnerable to humiliation and castastrophe. Some men are freed, by class, to impose hurt and judgement; others are trapped by social constraints--though sympathetic, they are either blithe or ineffectual. What fragile salvation there is comes from romantic and familial love under the cold and watchful eye of the capricious law. Just as her director brilliantly portrays the universal feeling of one's world crashing in, Staunton captures, rivetingly, the desperate straits of one well-meaning woman at the eye of a social storm.

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