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Vera Drake - the latest from Mike Leigh


M. Dale Prins
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wow - I'm surprised there is so little discussion on this and not many reviews either. Even more reason I guess for me to write one.

Finally got to see this this evening - my local cinema has suddenly brought out all the good films in one week.

Before I go any further

: WPC (which I'm guessing stands for Women's Police Corps or some such?

Woman Police Constable

She was excellent - I did think the police came out of this film very well, and wondered if the use of a WPC might be anachronistic? Dunno

Still trying to process my thoughts on this one, but as I've managed to procure a laptop in order to get my Arts and FAith Film Critic's Circle votes in for tonight I thought I'd stumble with my initial thoughts.

spoilers1.gif

Firstly of the 4 Leigh films I've seen, I think this is the best visually. Somehow he manages to make horrible wall paper and colours and carpet seem lush, and give them a sort of sophistication even though they were common place items, and I think leigh uses some of these things to give the film a kind of mythic feel, the snow falling on the two cars shot from overhead was just a delightful image even (in the second case) as it brings an emotional forboding.

I really can't see how one would call this propagandistic. It has far more interest in it's lead than the wider issue, and as Peter has highlighted above it does present Drake as naive. No where is it more evenhanded IMHO in its treatment of the historical background of the issue. Often the pro-choice camp defends its arguments on the basis that back street abrtions were terrible, an dthey play up the evil woman with a knitting needle angle. Leigh does quite the opposite. Yes this is a "backstreet abortion", but its a humane process, and whilst as Peter notes Vera never thinks to check up on her patients afterwards there are two factors that need to be born in mind. Firstly, whilst we never see her check on patients we don't know that this has been her consistent practice, she may have been very dilligent inthis area for a long time before concluding that the operationalways went well. Secondly though she has a discussion with two fellow abortionists in prison who both seem to indicate that the danger is minimal. THe other area is with the "legal" abortion and again here the "backstreet abortion" argument is undermined by the fact that the process could be performed fairly easily. OK

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  • 2 weeks later...

Well, I'm not sure if there's a prize for strange double feature choices but The Magic Roundabout in the morning followed by Vera Drake was as bizzare a day as I've had in a while.

I think the film gives us ample room to consider that Vera Drake might very well be NAIVE about what she does.

I can go with that. Nowhere better displayed than in the use of language. Vera, of course, always describes her work as "helping girls who've gotten into trouble" But, more than that, she's a woman who's never short on words. Whether she's tending to her sick mother, sitting with the family or performing an abortion she always has the words to fill in any of the film's uncomfortable moments. Often it's the same phrases. "Cup of tea", "You'll be wanting a biscuit" or her reciting of the procedure she's giving the women as she performs the abortions. (Phrases which, incidentally, would appear trite in most other films but Leigh has made a career of imbuing these cliches with meaning and making 'normality' special)

But once she's arrested and facing a whole new langauge, she can barely speak. She knows what an abortion is, but the word has no relevance for her. She knows exactly who the police and magistrate are talking about as they question and try her for her crime, but doesn't recognise it as relating to her. There's a beautiful moment on almost every occassion when someone calls her "Mrs. Drake" rather than "Vera" where Imelda Staunton takes a second to realise it is she who's being addressed.

In this context it might be possible to read the film as pro-abortion but I'm not convinced by that at all. There's nothing disposable about life in Vera Drake. When Frank's wife announces her pregnancy, there's nothing but genuine love in Vera's reaction. And when the same character flippantly remarks that she won't get to have another Christmas alone with her husband before the baby is born, we realise the true depths of her superficiality.

By far my favourite Mike Leigh film, and I hope Staunton gets the Oscar. Actually, I wish the entire Drake family could be nominated for some of those best ensemble awards.

Phil.

"We live as if the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be." - Angel

"We don't do perms!" - Trevor and Simon

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But once she's arrested and facing a whole new langauge, she can barely speak.

One of my HJ colleagues has an interesting (if a bit long) review from a somewhat feminist perspective about the film. She says In the "Faith Connection" section
Initially I thought this film would be about abortion. But it
A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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Thanks for the link, Darrel. I'll have a look at it when I get back from work. (If I type fast they'll think I'm doing some important e-mail wink.gif )

Just a quick additional observation I forgot to make last night: I found it interesting that everyones objections to abortion in Vera Drake both in the 'nice' abortion clinic / psychiatrist and from the police are all related to the health and well being of the mother. There's little reference (including from Vera herself) to the unborn children involved.

Phil.

"We live as if the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be." - Angel

"We don't do perms!" - Trevor and Simon

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Haven't had a chance to read your colleague's review yet, Darrel, but I find myself wondering if "feminist" is an apt term here. As I noted earlier, the film presents an interesting dynamic where we see the inadequacies of the patriarchal approach AND the inadequacies of the more matronly approach, and THEN, in the film's second half, it is the police, of all people, who bring together the masculine and feminine virtues in some sort of healthy, authoritative but also compassionate, synthesis.

Related to this, I wonder if the fact that Leigh dedicates the film to BOTH of his parents is of any relevance.

"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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I am a spoilers1.gif queen. Consider yourself warned. Although, I would add, there are no suprise punches in this film.

Finally saw this yesterday at the final screening of it at the local independent cinema. I'm glad I caught it. I had a very mixed reaction to the film, which I appreciate.

I think the two things that struck me the most were some things that people have already commented on.

Firstly: Vera's "naivety"

Secondly: The depiction of class.

The other thing that Peter mentioned in passing was that it didn't take me long to realise that this was an homage to Mike Leigh's parents. I didn't see the title mention of them, but I have read many interviews with him and in particular there is a discussion he had with Will Self (which I have on video if anyone's interested in a PAL copy) where they discuss his childhood in depth. If only Saturday television were always like this! I would add to the fact that his parents were in the medical profession that Leigh also was brought up in Manchester, a very working class industrial city. Although the film is set in London, there are distinct similarities between the depiction of working class London post war and Manchester (as an industrial city, it was also heavily bombed during the war). So there is something here that is profoundly personal, something which is quite unusual for Mike Leigh.

Now, I return to the two previous points.

I think the film gives us ample room to consider that Vera Drake might very well be NAIVE about what she does.

I can go with that.

I couldn't disagree more strongly. I think this is too simple an understanding of Vera who is incredibly empathetic and understanding of the causes, results, and effects of what she does. I agree in that she simplifies her actions and distances herself from them but I disagree that this is out of naivety (which implies ignorance). This is, after all, as we learn in the prison cell, a woman who has had to have an abortion herself (for reasons unknown). I think the resortion to phrases such as "I help young girls out," demonstrates not simplicity but a deeper and - as you rightly pointed out Peter - female understanding of pregnancy and abortion. In fact it is the Police who are trying to simplify matters by labelling her actions criminal in naming them "abortion" - there are clear-cut responses defined by law to "abortion" which do not allow for the many weights and issues that these women have to deal with. At the end, I believe her silence and her immense sorrow to be a breaking between the Vera that does what she believes is right but chooses to ignore the darker sides of her actions and the Vera that acknowledges full responsibility for acting according to her beliefs. The difference between the two teeters on that moment where she discovers that the girl nearly died as a result of her actions - this is a reality harder for her to deal with than one consisting of soapy water and cups of tea.

I have distinct problems with this depiction. I agree that Leigh never passes judgement on his characters, and also allows his actors to develop the role during filming. However in this case I feel that this does a diservice to Vera. I felt angry that she was so (good choice of word, and use of inverted coma's) "saintly" (again: I don't think that this is naivety). Similarly I felt angry that her "accomplice" was portrayed in such a poor light - she was little more than a scheming greedy rat who actually charges Vera for black market goods she sells to her whilst making money off Vera's illegal and risky actions. It is here that I feel the lines are too clearly drawn. One of the reasons that this is so disapointing is that the other women shown in the film are given much more freedom to be ambiguous than these two.

This, I think extends to the depiction of class which is clearly categorised as working, upper, and the newly burgening middle class. Amongst the working classes we have companionship, warmth, a focus on the "important" things in life, matriarchal structures. The upper class is hypocritical (they strive to maintain an image of moral decency but won't support Vera, the rich girl is raped and her abortion is disguised as a weekend away), cold and distant. The middle class (Frank & Joyce), the women too focused on material goods, the men emasculated and nostalgically longing for the simplicity of the family, afraid of judgement by their "betters" (Joyce doesn't want to have anything to do with Vera following the court case), and ashamed of their true roots. A little too stereotypical for comfort for me.

Now, I think the only reason that the film gets away with this is because of the magnificent performances by everyone involved, and the amount of detail that Leigh manages to fit into the film. Despite all my hesitancies, I think this is an excellent bit of film making and that Leigh rightly deserves as many best director awards as he can fit in his suitcase.

And yes - Sid & Ethel's courtship is a truly wonderful film romance. They reminded me of the couple in "When the Wind Blows"

Edited by gigi

"There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic" - Vladimir Nabokov

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The difference between the two teeters on that moment where she discovers that the girl nearly died as a result of her actions - this is a reality harder for her to deal with than one consisting of soapy water and cups of tea.

Well, I think that is inherently naive. To be providing a certain type of service/be engaged in a certain activity, and to regard it as something else entirely. What we're never led to doubt, though, is that Vera's responce to that moment is anything other than genuine. However, remember that there's a duality in that moment: she's both coming to realise the consequences of her actions but also is realising that she's ruined her family's special day. We're not sure which she feels more sorry about.

Indeed, the film is careful to point out that Vera may not feel remorse for what she does, and that perhaps she should not need to feel remorseful. (The film carefully leads up to the moment of Vera's gaol sentance, and everyone's reactions make it seem huge. But, then, we have that final scene in the prison where Vera compares sentances and suddenly hers seems barely significant. There's a feeling, perhaps even an expectancy, for these women to repeat the same cycle)

This, I think extends to the depiction of class which is clearly categorised as working, upper, and the newly burgening middle class.

Ignoring the fact that Vera Drake does the very obvious cinematic juxtaposition of "poor=nice, rich=bad" I think it does have enough complications in its class structure to avoid being stereotypical. Rather, Leigh tends to be archetypal.

The middle class (Frank & Joyce), the women too focused on material goods, the men emasculated and nostalgically longing for the simplicity of the family, afraid of judgement by their "betters"

I think you're a little harsh on Frank. Who clearly feels some guilt and level of discomfort at being wealthier than Stan but who, when in Stan and Vera's house, is completley at home. And, critically, he remains there even when Vera's actions have made it clear that the simplicity of that family life is gone forever.

Joyce is much more stereotypical but, however, I was never able to write her off entirely. I found myself wondering about her own family, since they're never mentionned and clearly not as much a part of her and Frank's lives as Stan and Vera. Is she jealous of Stan and Vera's family for having a family life she never had (and, hence, why she is so desperate to have a child and prove that she can be a loving mother) I'm probably reading too much into her, but I certainly couldn't *dismiss* her because her disdain at Stan and Vera's house is so at odds with everyone else in the room and I wanted to know why.

As you say, the performances were so good that I think they naturally give everyone an interesting subtext that they wouldn't otherwise have.

And yes - Sid & Ethel's courtship is a truly wonderful film romance.

"We live as if the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be." - Angel

"We don't do perms!" - Trevor and Simon

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OK, apologies if this sounds pedantic but I'm only doing it to attempt to clarify my point cos I'm not sure I explained myself very well. Here's the definition of naive

1. Lacking worldly experience and understanding

As I mentioned she is fully aware of all aspects of abortion as she has had one herself. It's what allows her such empathy. So it's not that she regards the service she provides as "something else entirely", it's that she knowingly chooses to seperate herself from it. The discovery of the girl nearly dying from the abortion isn't that she didn't know this was a possibility, it's that the possibility has taken place. It's almost like fake naivety - she knows all too well, but if she admits it to herself she wouldn't be able to function. I think this is tied up entirely with her own previous experiences and to say it's naivety is to deny her the force of those emotions that lead her to act as she does, that leads to her self-denial.

To call it naivety, I feel, doesn't credit Immelda Staunton's performance enough. It is richly layered. It's a continuation of themes that recur throughout Mike Leigh's work, notably Secrets and Lies: the dark things inside us that motivate us to act in ways that are damaging to ourselves.

Regarding archetypes. As I said, these characters are incredibly complex. The examples I gave of different class behaviours were the stereotypes and I don't feel that the characters necesarily fit them as much as Leigh might have wanted them to. There's a bit of imbalance here for me. The situations are there, as is the message of the injustice of poverty (on many levels, concluding in a commentary on establishment and wealth), it's almost as if the characters NEED to be a bit more stereotypical to fit the film properly. Perhaps it's a case of too much good acting?! There were moments though, that tried to hammer the point home a bit too much - the silence between the rich mother and daughter, Joyce's "can we get a washing machine now" after anouncing her pregnancy, Frank's "you're a lucky man" and complaining about looking at a new house a year after moving into this one. Things like that which broke down the other more intimate moments. Those moments seem stale. I was expecting a death-of-a-salesman-esque speech but in true British form, everyone just cried silently and accepted their lot. Heh, now I'm being cynical. Seriously though, where was the need of making Frank & Joyce middle class? And why juxtapose the other girl's abortion? I know these comparisons points reflected on Vera's position but it was just drummed home that little bit too much and I think that Leigh's purpose in doing this is to bring people out more favourable towards abortion. It makes me uncomfortable because the argument just fits too neatly.

Maybe I just didn't like the film despite all it's positive points? I don't know. As I said, I came out feeling somewhat ambiguous about it.

One other thing - the final scene with the other women in prison. More than anything I think that's for us as an audience to reflect on the scale of illegal abortions in the UK in that era. Also, there was a danger in painting such a "saintly" character that we forget that most back door abortionists did it for profit and weren't necesarily as careful as Vera - they've been arrested before but consider Vera's method "safe as houses." If we forget this, then the argument of the film is lessened. Now this is just the realm of speculation (and serious procrastination): if she has done this regularly over 10-20 years, she does actually have a pretty high "success" rate. She performs - ummm 6? abortions in the film, which is over a period of about 2 months until her arrest (going by the rape of the girl & Christmas) which means an average of 36 a year. This is post war, we can safely assume that during wartime there would have been a higher proportion so for war years let's say 50 a year for 6 years. That makes somewhere between 516 and 876 over a 10-20 year period. One near-death is almost clinically low (and unrealistic?)

One thing I did love though, the abundance of 40's/50's names? Reg & Ethel & Vera & George & Frank & Joyce & Nellie & Sid & Stan! A joy to behold!

Edited by gigi

"There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic" - Vladimir Nabokov

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  • 4 months later...

Watched it last night, with my wife, who, upon seeing my pull the DVD out of my bag, said despondently,

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Interesting question, Christian. Lord knows my perspective on Brenda Blethyn has turned a little less appreciative since I began to see her in other films and realized her character in Secrets & Lies wasn't exactly a stretch for her. (She kind of reminds me of Dianne Wiest, who was typecast in mousy wife and mother roles in films like Edward Scissorhands and The Birdcage -- except Wiest, at least, got to blow us all away with her complete-change-of-pace performance in Bullets over Broadway.) Timothy Spall, on the other hand -- wow! Now HE'S versatile!

"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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Yes, although there's one Mike Leigh actor who's even more versatile: Leslie Manville.

* Mrs. Wells (the woman who gets Susan in touch with the psychiatrist), Vera Drake

* Penny (Tim Spall's wife), All or Nothing

* Lucy Gilbert, Topsy-Turvy

* the social worker who tells Hortense her birth mother, Secrets & Lies

* Laetitia Boothe-Brain (the woman in the high-class couple), High Hopes

* Mandy (Philip Davis' wife), Grown-Ups

Other than all these roles are female, I dare someone to find more a few surface similarities between the parts she's played in Mike Leigh films. Manville's simply the most chameleonic performer I've ever seen.

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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And neither did Sarah, although the ending did reignite her skepticism about the film, which she had to that point (grudgingly) admired.
Christian, please inform Sarah that we are Vera Drake pals for life. Words that you use like "skeptical" and "grudgingly admired" are a perfect fit to describe my reaction to it too. I thought I was going to like it, until I realized how sorry everyone felt for poor old Vera, and that the intent was to make us feel even worse for her plight.

I saw it with about 700 Pro-Choicers and did not want to stay afterwards for the so-called "film" discussion. Whew, I booked out of there in twelve seconds flat and am still alive today because of it. (Not that I would have sparked anything controversial -- I'm usually a pretty laid back kind of guy -- more that it looked like a mob was forming for a lynching.)

-s.

Edited by stef

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Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 2 months later...

I finally saw this after leaving it to sit in its Netflix envelope for a good week because I just wasn't sure what to expect. Gotta say I loved it; very restrained and unshrieky for Mike Leigh (don't get me wrong - I'm a fan - but I'm usually ready for some kind of hysteria when I see his movies). I loved the family interactions in the tiny apartment...the warmth that was so evident when Vera was there and so absent after the arrest. Love the widely-varied looks at humanity, the contrasts, the dignity, the questions the movie made me ask. Definitely, definitely worth watching, methinks. (Also I love the faces in the movie - Leigh always has the best faces!)

Sara Zarr

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  (Also I love the faces in the movie - Leigh always has the best faces!)

No way, Sara! The Coen Brothers cast the best movie faces! smile.gif

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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  • 8 years later...

Somehow, after writing this, it feels appropriate to me that there be a nine year gap between posts in this thread.

 

 

 

Even so, go Googling “best films of 2004″ and Vera Drake tends to elicit an “oh, yeah, and that, too” response rather than any genuine enthusiasm

 

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