Monday, August 16, 2010

Golden Lion Winners: Vera Drake

Vera Drake
Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring: Imelda Staunton, Philip Davis, Eddie Marsan, Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays, Alex Kelly, Heather Craney, Peter Wright
Grade: A -

(Won the Golden Lion of San Marco in 2004, over "3-Iron", "Birth", "Howl's Moving Castle", "Kings and Queen", and "The Sea Inside")

It was around this time six years ago that "Vera Drake" was gathering buzz for its awards push, the height of which was for its little-known star Imelda Staunton. The film and Staunton went on to win the Golden Lion and Volpi Cup, before collecting three Oscar nominations. Although my feelings regarding the film's quality are unchanged, when I initially watched "Vera Drake" I considered it to be more of a parable, a tale of naivety being punished, than a social study. A recent viewing suggests that Vera herself is less sure or representative a heroine (she isn't made a martyr by Staunton or Leigh), and the production ultimately benefits from a more flexile approach towards the subject of guilt.

One of Mike Leigh's most enviable assets is how he compels his Actors to adapt to their filmic surroundings, to think about how their characters would react to the different social situations they find themselves in. As with any family the Drakes encompass an array of personality-types which flourish depending on the circumstance, the extended familial links allowing for nervous exchanges of budding relationships. It works well, meek daughter Ethel and her new fiancée Reg provide a platform for Vera to exercise her typical caretaking abilities; Stan's brother Frank and his wife Joyce act as an interesting aside on the growth of consumerism, part of the post-war baby boom that places Joyce on decidedly unsteady ground with the Drakes once Vera's revelation comes.

"Vera Drake" is much in the grain of theatre, subjecting its title character to a trial by proxy, rather discouraging us from taking a side in the moral issue on show. Abortion is a polarising enough discussion as it is without drawing attention to the spectrum of opinion, and for the most part the film is successful at relaying the matter to fearful glances and tension within the home environment. Leigh concentrates his focus and helps to richen our voyeuristic experience by using his Actors' own instinctive observations to broaden our sense of the period. Scripturally, his cast are making the best of what they have, and so the Drake family become a canny approximation of working-class post-war England, muddling through life without really taking it for granted. The literalisms of the narrative are strengthened by the aomebic, confined set-plays, anchored significantly by Dick Hope's squalid, tempered cinematography.

Imelda Staunton thrives on the responsibility of her character, ingratiating Vera's selflessness through her insistent tone. For a small woman she projects such a formidable air, and gives the impression that by allowing her to help you it will benefit her life as well as yours. One could imagine this frail, stubby woman carting bricks around, having hoodwinked builders into believing that her presence is indispensable. Vera's self-expository opening serves to create a sense of routine, of this being just another Monday in her busy life, and only enhances the dolorous fervour of her casual nursemaid act being violently upturned in the film's second half. Staunton reacts to the police's arrival with a mixture of firm acceptance and tangible collapse, and when forced to confront the severity of her crime in the subsequent interrogation, the geyser of shame has well and truly burst. A harrowing scene sees Vera whisper her secret inaudibly to distressed, faintly resilient husband Stan, the final fall from grace of a woman that appeared to be such an untouchable character.

While Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark so painstakingly draws attention to its politics, Godardian in the ferocity with which it questions why we think the way that we do, Vera Drake isn't on anywhere near as lucid a plain, since essentially Vera is guilty of the crime she is charged. That doesn't prevent her demise from bearing resemblances to Dancer's Selma: the creative, theatrical side of Selma -- where she isn't following instructions so much as exercising her rite as a leading lady, basking in a rare limelight -- is somewhat relative to the way that Vera wants to craft a path for her children, in a facilitative but harmlessly-maternal capacity. The primary function of both women is to serve their family, and when Vera is eventually confronted about her actions, the assimilating dread of being unable to organise family events, or oversee the births, marriages, and deaths in her period of impending absence, is the most sympathetic part of her plight.

1 comment:

okinawaassault said...

Beautiful piece. Interestingly, when Vera's interrogated, she isn't really verbose, She calls her act 'helping young girls out,' but the fact that she finds it unspeakable speaks to the morals of her time. Her indirect defense both helps and hinders her connection both the those around her and to the audience.

That said, can't wait for Another Year.