Mike Leigh is known for his individual and ambitious approach to character creation and film making. As one of his most stylised films, Vera Drake possibly demonstrates this the most clearly. Taking months at a time to develop character back story and personality, Leigh’s character are usually firmly in place before any kind of script or plot. Within the very last moments of the plot of Vera Drake, certain characters, and the actors playing them, weren’t aware of what would happen to them or how their stories would conclude, if at all. There has always been something special about the way that Mike Leigh works with actors and actresses but so rarely does it echo through the screen in the way that it does in Vera Drake; the film that resulted in Academy recognition and success for the ‘astutely British’ film maker. Vera Drake tells the story of one woman and her attempts to help young women in need; performing the most illegal and morally controversial of tasks purely out of kindness and out of a desperation to prevent suffering. Vera Drake is all about family, human nature and, ultimately, about an individual’s belief in preventing human trauma. With an array of British talent on show, Vera Drake is highlighted by the performances given, the depth of character and the danger of challenging the law when it comes to what you believe is just.
It is, of course, Imelda Staunton’s performance that has remained the most memorable thing about this film. A character brought to her knees and left broken and beaten, Vera is fragile and vulnerable for the closing chapters of the film. Her secret role in illegal at home abortions is hidden from her family and friends and yet she is never portrayed as sneaky or crafty. Despite the criminal nature of her behaviour, she is a wife and a mother and never seen as a felon. Vera herself is a humane and caring individual whose bold choice to protect and save those around her from financial trouble, social humiliation and medical complications defines her. Staunton is one of Britain’s most precious actresses. Her conviction and dedication to this character is moving and haunting. Pushing herself to her limits, Staunton drags the audience down into the desperation and tragedy of her character’s situation. Staunton is supported by Phil Davis and Daniel Mays and together they create a strong sense of family and union. Sally Hawkins also gives a solid individual performance, adding substance to an interesting sub-plot.
An abundance of themes are explored in Vera Drake but all are rounded up by the film’s message about the importance of family and community. Vera Drake is about being completely alone amidst a family where everyone is supported and combined. Her personality and kindness makes Vera a mother, wife and leader but her secrets distance her from other characters and she remains entirely isolated by her decisions. Even the audience are distanced from her activities until one compelling scene where Vera explains exactly why she does what she does. In this one scene, Staunton reaches an entirely new level of cinematic pain and vulnerability. Finally, the audience see her true passion and protective nature, exploited and exposed. Leigh’s body of work is full of comedy and Vera Drake feels like something of an anomaly. There is a constant sense of impending doom that haunts the audience until the final moments of the film. The tension builds to one specific scene and the audience seem to be playing a waiting game for the first two thirds of the film. Watching Vera go about her daily tasks opens her up to the audience as well as dragging out an unavoidable ending. Mike Leigh brings a realism and an agony to Vera Drake that few other directors could have done. Watching Staunton in the final moments of the film leaves you with the impression that this collaboration between lead actress and director was based on an completely clear and mutual understanding.
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