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VERA DRAKE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis, Peter Wight, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Adrian Scarborough, Eddie Marsan
Director: Mike Leigh
Audio: English 5.1 Surround, stereo surround, or DTS
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: New Line
Features: Trailers
Length: 125 minutes
Release Date: March 29, 2005

"They've got no one.  I help them out."

Film ****

Watching a Mike Leigh film is like watching an Ingmar Bergman film.  Both experiences are often akin to being slugged relentlessly in the gut with a sledgehammer.  This is particularly true of Leigh's Vera Drake (2004), an extremely powerful if mind-numbingly depressing film.

The story is set in 1950 and, as with most Mike Leigh films, it concerns the English working-class.  The opening scenes are innocuous enough, establishing relationships between a dear old couple, Phil and Vera Drake, and their two grown children, Sid and Ethel.  Everyone lives together in the same household, including an invalid grandmother who remains bedridden for most of the film.  Uncle Fred and his young wife live within driving distance and pop by on special occasions for friendly dinners.  Such a family gathering may soon be in the works, as Uncle Fred and his wife are hoping for a blessed event, while the Drakes themselves have been playing matchmakers with their daughter Ethel and her prospective suitor, Reg.

Bonding between the family members is further strengthened by their common interests.  The men have their war stories; each in his own capacity has served England in the recently concluded world war, still somewhat painful and fresh in memory.  Romantic overtures likewise keep the ladies engaged.  All in all, the Drake family is reasonably content with its lot in life, and while their day-by-day existence may not be entirely peaches and cream, neither is it weighed down by particularly worrisome or odious matters.

Vera Drake is the kindly matriarch of her family.  When she is not tending to the needs of her own kindred, she is inviting people cheerfully over for tea, always taking care to make her guests feel quite welcome within the Drake home.  Vera is so warm and winsome that she is immediately endearing to all who meet her.  Such a blessed pumpkin as this little English lady would seem anyone's vision of an ideal grandmotherly sort.

But beneath her pleasant facade, Vera conceals an alarming secret, which turns out to be the true subject matter of this film.  Vera's hidden life is one spent anonymously helping young girls and women caught in a family way.  Were it not for the strictly illicit nature of Vera's activities, her actions might be deemed indicative of typical altruism born of her uncommonly good heart.  Indeed, in Vera's eyes, what she does is merely an extension of her own nurturing nature, performed with no regard towards re-compensation or financial gain.  But in the eyes of the British government, which eventually learns of Vera's indiscretions, Vera Drake is guilty of committing a most serious felony.  And when one of Vera's girls falls gravely ill, it is not long before the police come knocking upon the doorsteps of the Drake residence.

Vera's family is completely unaware of her clandestine activities.  The evening of Vera's arrest provides one of the film's most stunning and anguished moments, for it coincides with a special dinner event.  The family has just settled down to celebrate Reg and Ethel's engagement, and when the police arrive unexpectedly, the shock registered upon the actors' faces is quite genuine (director Mike Leigh had kept all his principal actors, save for Imelda Staunton, ignorant of the film's true theme until this point).

Consequently, the naïvely blissful optimism of the film's first half is replaced by a devastatingly desperate tone in the second half.  Watching such a sweet little old lady as Vera Drake emotionally collapse in grades is utterly heart-breaking.  The remainder of Vera Drake follows the family's reactions to this serious crisis in their personal lives, and each member is given an opportunity to reflect upon and to express an opinion over what has transpired.

As the title character, Imelda Staunton is absolutely superb, providing an Oscar-caliber performance.  We truly sympathize for Staunton's Vera Drake despite the relative reprehensibility of her secret activities.  Indeed, the strength of the typical Mike Leigh film lies in its extremely sharp characterizations and its realistic portrayal of English working-class and family life.  Much of this realism is derived from Leigh's workshop-style of filmmaking - over several weeks of intense rehearsal sessions, the actors themselves develop their characters and create much of their own dialogue.  The result is quite frequently a film of uncommon depth and powerful resonance, as is the case with Vera Drake.

Mike Leigh's Vera Drake serves as a reminder to audiences of the fragility of our lives and our creature comforts.  What is given to us may be taken from us.  The thin line between good and evil is a purely relative one, and what is redemptive in the eyes of some may be blasphemous or sacrilegious in the eyes of others.  The solution to such a dilemma as presented in Vera Drake is never readily apparent and rarely easily conceived.  But that is what life is, a mixture of gray areas and ambivalent choices, never purely black and white options.

Video ***

Vera Drake is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format.  Although a color film, the overall color scheme is a bleached-out, gray tone reflective of the film's increasingly somber mood.  Details are sharp in this transfer, which has a trace of graininess but is otherwise fine.

Audio ***

Why an intensely dialogue-drive film like Vera Drake would need a DTS audio track is beyond me.  Nevertheless, audio options on this disc include a DTS track as well as a Dolby English 5.1 Surround or stereo surround track.  There isn't much difference between these tracks, and all are quite adequate.

Thank goodness for optional subtitles, though!  The English accents in Vera Drake are thick, and the subtitles will help audiences to follow the storyline.

Features ½*

Aside from some DVD credits and web-links, there are only trailers for Nicole Kidman's Birth, Vera Drake, Björk's Dancer in the Dark, and Before Night Falls.

Summary:

Stunning and heart-breaking, Vera Drake makes for a difficult viewing experience but is certainly one of the best films of 2004.  Strongly recommended, with the caveat that its surprise central theme is a highly controversial one.

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