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VERA DRAKE (article first published : 2005-04-11)

One of the most gifted of writer-directors, Mike Leigh, the British genius behind Secrets and Lies and Topsy-Turvy, once again delivers with Vera Drake, this stark, richly-detailed and achingly moving story set against the grim backdrop of a sunless, grey winter in post-war, food-rationed London.

The winner of Venice Film Festival awards for best film and best actress (Imelda Staunton, who also reaped an Oscar nomination), Leigh's latest is the story of a simple, kindly woman whose life starts to collapse around her.

Mrs Drake is a cheerful, well-mannered, good-natured sort who cleans the homes of the well-off, cares for elderly relatives and never seems to show signs of weariness, believing there's nothing a nice cup of tea won't put right. She's eager to help anybody, but when it turns out that "anybody" includes young women who have found themselves "in trouble", it leads to Vera's downfall.

She takes no payment for her services as an abortionist, about which her mechanic husband Stan and two adult children know nothing. What Vera doesn't realise, though, is that her black marketeering pal, Lili (Ruth Sheen), charges two guineas for each introduction - a discovery which stuns Vera almost as much as her inevitable arrest.

This occurs after one of her procedures, which always involve only soapy water, disinfectant and an old bulb-and-tube pump, leads to one of her patients, from a middle-class family, developing an infection and almost dying. What is more devastating to Vera is that her arrest, in 1950, comes at a time when her family, gathered at her North London council flat, finally experiences a burst of happiness.

Leigh's film, featuring cameo appearances by Jim Broadbent and Alun Corduner (who played Gilbert and Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy), makes for gruelling viewing. However, it is intelligent and compelling cinema in which Leigh unravels his 125-minute tale without preaching, leaving us to make up our own minds about this thorny issue.

He does, however, reveal some deft observations on the hypocrisy of the time, showing, in the sidebar story of a raped girl, how the upper classes were able to tackle abortion in an altogether different way, by visiting a fancy clinic after a demonstration of faked mental instability.

The film's attention to period detail, from decor to class attitudes and speech patterns of the time, is immaculate and the ensemble performances, as usual with a Leigh film, is out of the top drawer.

The accolades for Staunton, seen in small roles in Sense and Sensibility and Shakespeare In Love, are well deserved, her tear-stained face becoming a mirror of the misery and shame Vera experiences when her world collapses.

Leigh bolsters his story with excellent supporting players, among them Phil Davis as Stan, the staunchly loyal husband; a pale Alex Kelly as Ethel, Vera's socially inept, wallflower daughter; and Eddie Marsan as the colourless Reg, the awkward neighbour who almost reluctantly woos Ethel.

Of note, too, is Daniel Mays as Vera's son, Sid, who becomes angry and judgmental when he learns of his mother's secret; and Heather Craney as Joyce, Vera's materialistic and stuck-up sister-in-law, whose only interest is in acquiring a washing machine and TV set. Rating 9/10. - Billy Suter




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