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Vera Drake - the latest from Mike Leigh


M. Dale Prins
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From Reuters:

"Secrets & Lies director Mike Leigh has sealed a North American deal for his new film, Vera Drake, with New Line Cinema....Starring Imelda Staunton, Jim Broadbent, Heather Craney and Philip Davis, the film follows the story of an Englishwoman in the 1950s who is completely devoted to and loved by her working-class family. However, she also leads a secret life as an abortionist, which threatens to unravel her life as well as her family's. '[The film] contains a groundbreaking performance by Imelda Staunton and raises critically relevant issues in an emotionally involving family situation,' said New Line co-chairman and co-CEO Michael Lynne." (Emphasis mine.)

Dale

Edited by M. Dale Prins

Metalfoot on Emmanuel Shall Come to Thee's Noel: "...this album is...monotony...bland, tripy fare..."

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Wow. It will be interesting to see him going back to a female "lead" (if you can call his main characters "leads"). I can already see the firestorm on this in Christian critical circles. I wonder if this issue is as "relevant" in UK circles as it is in American ones, or at least what sort of nuance the UK system lends to the issue.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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: I can already see the firestorm on this in Christian critical circles.

While it is crazy to speculate without having seen the film, I suspect that there may not be a The Cider House Rules-esque backlash toward Vera Drake. A few reasons:

a) Unlike Ken Loach and other more obviously dogmatic filmmakers, characters' doctrines in Leigh's films are rarely shown as either positive or negative, be it the Benders' communist leanings in High Hopes or Johnny's nihilism in Naked. It's simply Who They Are, and I sincerely doubt that Vera's pro-abortion views and actions are going to be remotely as in-your-face sympathetic as, say, saintly Michael Caine's in Cider House.

B) One of the major themes through Leigh's television movies and theatrical features has been conception: Families trying to conceive (Secrets and Lies), or families deciding whether or not they should conceive (High Hopes, Grown-Ups), or families deciding what to do now that they have conceived (Four Days in July, Sullivan

Edited by M. Dale Prins

Metalfoot on Emmanuel Shall Come to Thee's Noel: "...this album is...monotony...bland, tripy fare..."

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The Cannes point is interesting. It can't be bad, I mean, look at who has directed it. So maybe you are onto something with the whole "too conservative" thing. That would seem like a logical conclusion in a Leigh film, just one more alienating facet of modern society being investigated in a very personal sort of drama.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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(M)Leary wrote:

: That would seem like a logical conclusion in a Leigh film, just one more alienating

: facet of modern society being investigated in a very personal sort of drama.

For some reason this reminds me of Woody Allen, who identified himself (or his character, but what's the diff?) as pro-choice in 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters but whose films at that time were full of awe and wonder for the miracle of childbirth; in 1988's Another Woman, he even goes so far as to depict one character's decision to have an abortion as a sign of how cold and unfeeling she is becoming.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Someone asks whether the abortion issue is as timely in the UK at the moment.

Tonight, British terrestrial TV will be screening a controversial documentary which, for the first time, contains video footage of an actual abortion. The programme will apparently be presenting a debate that gives equal voice to both sides of the issue.

As for Leigh's film, I look forward to it. I have great respect for Leigh as a storyteller and filmmaker, and don't envisage him being as heavy-handed about it as, say, Lasse Hallstrom in The Cider House Rules.

Drop by The Grace Pages, a rest-stop for fellow pilgrims.

-- Dave aka Alvy

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A bit more from the New Line's press release (possible vague spoilers):

"Vera Drake paints an extraordinary portrait of a selfless woman who is completely devoted to, and loved by, her working class family. She spends her days doting on them and caring for her sick neighbor and elderly mother. However, she also secretly visits women and helps them induce miscarriages for unwanted pregnancies. While the practice itself was illegal in 1950s England, Vera sees herself as simply helping women in need, and always does so with a smile and kind words of encouragement. When she is finally found out by the authorities, Vera's world and family life rapidly unravel. The film offers a compelling historical perspective on the much discussed controversial subject and raises difficult questions that are as timely and relevant today as they were decades ago."

Dale

Metalfoot on Emmanuel Shall Come to Thee's Noel: "...this album is...monotony...bland, tripy fare..."

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A recent "Everwood" episode covered this.

This info helps a lot. I suppose we could have guessed this was where Leigh was going, but does this take place in the '50's? A period piece? Fantastic, I can't recall if Leigh has told any stories from this era.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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: I suppose we could have guessed this was where Leigh was

: going, but does this take place in the '50's?

Yes.

: A period piece?

Yes.

: Fantastic, I can't recall if Leigh has told any stories from this

: era.

Other than Topsy-Turvy and perhaps some shorts that I haven't seen, all Leigh's films take place in the present or in the near past (and in Career Girls, both).

Dale

Edited by M. Dale Prins

Metalfoot on Emmanuel Shall Come to Thee's Noel: "...this album is...monotony...bland, tripy fare..."

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We are going to miss your staccato responses at Cornerstone this year.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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If Cornerstone is sponsoring a session this year on how to make enough money composing and arranging handbell music that one can quit one's job, then I'm so there. Otherwise, um, I'll be so here. (Yes, I do realize the dates do not overlap, but I only have so much vacation in through July, and I've decided it's best if I be semi-pragmatic with it.)

Dale

Metalfoot on Emmanuel Shall Come to Thee's Noel: "...this album is...monotony...bland, tripy fare..."

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  • 2 months later...

I can't give the source, but an early note on Vera Drake from a private mailing list I'm on:

"Leigh doesn't really take any kind of ethical stand on abortion in Vera Drake, though he's clearly sympathetic toward the title character and contemptuous of the draconian response, both legal and social, to her actions....Still, the film isn't as much of a 'problem picture' as I'd feared, and the first half in particular is a stunning evocation of post-WWII Britain, in some respects more nuanced than many of the British films actually made in that period (in the sense that it brings to the foreground various mundane details that would have seemed beneath notice at the time). Still more didactic than dramatic, but in a very tolerable and forgivable way. And he's just getting better and better as a filmmaker, in terms of both composition and rhythm."

For what all that's worth.

Dale

Edited by M. Dale Prins

Metalfoot on Emmanuel Shall Come to Thee's Noel: "...this album is...monotony...bland, tripy fare..."

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  • 2 months later...
  • 1 month later...

Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:

: GetReligion blogs about Mike Leigh...

Sigh. "Get some propaganda with your popcorn" is such a dismissive headline. I have no doubt that lots of people eat popcorn while watching Mike Leigh films, but they're not exactly "popcorn movies", are they? And having seen the film today, I'm not really sure I could call it "propaganda", either -- Leigh might very well have intended his film to make the case that abortion should not be illegal, or whatever, but I think journalists who describe the title character as "saintly" are failing to take into account exactly how Leigh and his actors do what they do.

Before I get into the spoiler-ish specifics, I just want to begin by saying that this film exhibits Leigh's typical and wonderful attention to detail, and his knack for getting the character interactions right and making them absolutely believable. I actually shed a tear -- or at least my eyes welled up -- when a certain character asked another character for his daughter's hand in marriage, and the family reacted the way it did. Assuming Leigh went into this film with the same collaborative and improvisational spirit that he has approached all his other films, I find it difficult to believe that he would just go and make a piece of propaganda. Yes, there ARE a couple of scenes, here and there, where certain characters utter lines that sound a bit political, a bit sloganish, but given the circumstances under which they speak these lines ... well, people do talk like that, don't they?

MILD SPOILERS (but not much more than what you see in the trailer)

I think the film gives us ample room to consider that Vera Drake might very well be NAIVE about what she does. What do we see of her work? She is given an address and a time to be at a woman's apartment; she goes to that apartment, makes some soapy water, and tells the woman in question to take her knickers off; through a syringe, she squeezes as much soapy water into the woman's womb as she can; and then she tells the woman not to worry, in a day or two the woman will feel a pain down there, and the woman is to go to the toilet and wait until the bleeding is done, and then she'll be "right as rain"; and that is the last Vera ever sees of her patients (for lack of a better word; Vera is not medically trained or anything). We see her go through this routine time and again, and with a variety of patients, and we begin to see that Vera's actions are not rooted in one-to-one bonding with each individual woman, but in a sort of habit or routine. (The diversity of the patients and their reactions, contrasted with the consistency of the "professional" who works with them, is reminiscent of the taxi-cab sequences in All or Nothing, or the photo-studio scenes in Secrets & Lies.)

Now, note how Vera Drake is brought to the police's attention in the first place. One of the girls she treats just happens to become so ill that she is sent to the hospital, where the doctors say she almost died. The girl's mother says her daughter was having a miscarriage, but the doctors can tell there's more to it than that, and so they call in the police. Now, by some odd coincidence, the MOTHER just happens to know who performed the abortion, because she and Vera worked together nearly 20 years before, and they recognized each other. If it were not for this coincidence, who is to say whether Vera would have been tracked down. And who is to say how many OTHER cases there have been like this in the decade or two that Vera has been performing secret abortions -- none of which would have come to Vera's attention, because she never followed any of these women up.

Add to this the fact that one of the last abortions Vera performs before the one that gets her caught is for a Caribbean, I think, woman who is terrified when she realizes that Vera will not be coming back; Vera looks a bit troubled by the realization that she is leaving this woman in a state of fear and uncertainty about the possible health hazards of the abortion that has just been performed; there is a crack in the armour of her confidence and assurance, there. And add to this the fact that the woman who arranged these abortions for Vera -- a sharp-tongued woman who has been the "saintly" Vera's friend since childhood -- has been collecting referral fees from the patients, without telling Vera; that is, someone has been profitting off of Vera's activities, and she never had any idea.

There is also an intriguing subplot about a girl from a well-to-do family who is date-raped and seeks an abortion through official channels -- she visits a doctor, who is obliged to refer her to a psychiatrist, and we are left with the impression that this girl will get the "help" she is looking for because she is from the upper class, whereas Vera Drake is pursued by the law because she works among the lower classes who do not have access to the wealthier doctors and psychiatrists who make it possible for girls to get abortions without TOO much stigma. (This girl's only connection to Vera is that Vera works for her mum as a cleaning lady.)

Another striking feature of the film is the way that the medical establishment to which this rich girl turns consists entirely of professional men -- men who may not want to appear insensitive, but who nonetheless come across as patriarchal figures who don't exactly put the troubled rich girl at ease. In contrast, Vera's services are expressed in very domestic and feminine terms -- she gets jobs through a female friend, she may or may not be motivated by her own experiences with a bad pregnancy, she tells her patients she's going to go put the kettle on, etc. And then the police show up -- and while they are led by a male plainclothesman, their numbers also include a female officer from the WPC (which I'm guessing stands for Women's Police Corps or some such?); so the law enforcers, at least, manage to balance the authoritative male figure with the compassionate female figure.

Where I would go with all these observations, I'm not exactly sure. But I feel they must go SOMEwhere. And I'm not all that happy with the idea that we can boil the film down to "propaganda" and dismiss it as such. Sure, there ARE elements in the film that suggest there is a bit of message-sending going on. But as responsible Christian film critics, we shouldn't settle for that. I don't think Leigh's films can be treated as though they were mawkish movies-of-the-week.

BTW, y'all might be interested to know that, at the very end of the credits, Leigh dedicates the film to his parents, "a doctor and a midwife".

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Man we don't get this until January, which sucks. Last time Mike Leigh had a film out we got it first (I still remember the delight in sitting down the next morning to post about a film everyone wanted to see and I got to first)

Matt

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MattPage wrote:

: Man we don't get this until January, which sucks.

Really? Wow.

FWIW, it occurs to me that one thing I did not mention in my earlier post is that the characters spend a fair bit of time talking to each other about their experiences in the war. It might be interesting to tease out the significance of these exchanges in terms of how, or whether, they relate to the abortion theme.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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MattPage, I'm guessing you didn't catch this film at the London festival a day or two ago? Are there any other festivals between now and January where you might be able to catch it?

- - -

The director is in the details

But while the popular image of the swinging 1950s, particularly that of suburban America, has been demythologized many times before on the big screen, Leigh's film is notable in that it nonetheless presents a very sympathetic portrait of his parents' generation -- a generation he grew up rebelling against. "Of course, one now realizes in retrospect, what maybe one half-knew or realized [all along], which is that the reason why our parents, in particularly in the '50s, were so bloody respectable ... was because they were putting the world back together again from its previous chaos," says Leigh, who came of age in the '60s. "Maybe it's not insignificant that I waited until I was over 60 before I made this film -- but I don't know whether we're maybe pursuing connections that don't quite add up." Of course, Leigh has long had a reputation for treating his characters with sensitivity, no matter who they are. While his films are often political, they are never polemical. This is never been clearer than with Vera Drake, a movie about abortion by a pro-choice filmmaker that nonetheless was endorsed by Vatican Radio during the Venice Film Festival -- something that astonished and pleased Leigh. "I think they see the morality in the film, and I appreciate that," he says. Part of that morality comes from the depiction of a loving family, one that sticks together rather than falls apart when they find out that Vera has a secret life "helping out girls" who find themselves in "a bit of trouble." Says Leigh of families: "I've done my demolition jobs..." The Drakes pull together to support the mother of the household -- even if they don't all support her actions. "All societies at all times have had people who do this," says Leigh, who hopes the film adds to the abortion debate by reminding people of what it was like before it became legal. "[T]here have always been people -- mostly women -- who know how to solve this particular problem, sadly."

National Post, October 21

- - -

The comment about the 1950s reminds me of something Rod Bennett said in his review of Pleasantville: "Undoubtedly the Fifties really were unhealthy in some pretty fundamental ways; these people seem to have taken a sort of abstract joy in structure for its own sake and just why this is the case would have been a profitable subject to explore. I personally think that the events of the preceding twenty years had left those who came of age in that decade with something akin to post-traumatic shock syndrome. Think of it: an American born in 1930 spent his childhood in the Great Depression, his adolescence during the greatest war in human history, learned of the Holocaust about the same time he learned the facts of life, and lived his teen years under the perpetual shadow of the H-bomb. Is it really so unintelligible that such a person should reach adulthood with a hell-bent determination to carve out a quiet little niche for himself and stay there for the duration?"

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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A bit more on the Catholic response on Vera Drake, from Newsday:

"[Leigh: 'W]hat the reaction will be and how it's going to play is difficult to say. When we were at Venice, Vatican Radio was quite positive about the film, as was the Catholic Herald here. The reviews have been kind of reasonable and say, "Well, actually the film isn't black and white propaganda."'

"On Vatican Radio, a correspondent from the Venice Festival called Leigh's film 'difficult and interesting,' and said it 'avoids propaganda and tentative and facile conclusions.' Peter Malone of the World Catholic Association for Communication has written that, 'Catholic teaching has always urged the faithful to condemn the sin but not the sinner. Leigh's portrait of Vera Drake contributes to that way of looking at her despite what she does.'

"...Louis Giovino, a spokesman for the Catholic League, which has mounted protests against other controversial New York Film Festival films, said Vera Drake was not something the league was interested in. (He noted that another festival film - Alm

Metalfoot on Emmanuel Shall Come to Thee's Noel: "...this album is...monotony...bland, tripy fare..."

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: MattPage, I'm guessing you didn't catch this film at the London festival a day or

: two ago? Are there any other festivals between now and January where you

: might be able to catch it?

No.

To be honest I'm not very "up" on film festivals and when and where they are. A growth area perhaps? And I'm sadly too busy and too skint to go to London specifically to watch films. The other issue is that I'm off "films I haven't seen before" until the middle of December, so in some ways this not getting released until January is a bit of a blessing (evenethough I object to the principle)

Matt

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  • 2 weeks later...

Peter does a very good job of going over the key points of the film. And like him I wouldn't call it propaganda (but would something have to be considered such just because it supports legalized abortion?). I think it very clearly does support the legal availability of abortion. I wouldn't even call it balanced, but still, it is rarely preachy in its approach. It simply shows the case on pragmatic grounds.

One small side bit that impressed me was the WPC's care for Vera while in custody. She very much reminded me of Vera's care for her patients (and everyone else in her life for that matter.)

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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  • 1 month later...

Excellent film. Great performances.

And, something I wasn't expecting at all... what is probably the funniest meeting-to-courtship-to-marriage story I've ever seen. I don't think any onscreen couple has ever been so delightfully comical as Rich and Ethel. Their walk through the park is one of the funniest things I've seen all year, and Rich's remark during the Christmas party was priceless.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:

: And, something I wasn't expecting at all... what is probably the funniest meeting-

: to-courtship-to-marriage story I've ever seen.

YES!! As I said in my earlier post here, "I actually shed a tear -- or at least my eyes welled up -- when a certain character asked another character for his daughter's hand in marriage, and the family reacted the way it did." And that was a tear of immense joy.

That proposal is hilarious, too. I want to see the film again Just For That. smile.gif

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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