It’s all good in the world of ‘Vera Drake’

Times Staff Writer

“Vera DRAKE’S” 1950 England is unmistakably Mike Leigh’s. A dreary, clamped-down cloister where familial affection, or any manifestation of feeling for that matter, falls exclusively to the working classes, it’s clearly the place he’s spent his entire career boring into.

But from the moment we set eyes on Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton), a middle-aged housekeeper in a shabby green coat with the solid build and cheerful industriousness that empires are built on, we know she’s an altogether different kind of Leigh heroine. Bustling through her grim neighborhood, popping in on invalids, inviting lonely young men home for tea and performing illegal abortions on poor girls in trouble, Vera is a ministering angel in droopy nylons.

Thirty years removed from the post-Thatcher indignities that make Leigh’s most memorable protagonists so thrillingly hard to watch, she may be his most unimpeachable character yet. She’s a paragon of virtue, despite being a criminal -- and if that seems to imply that she embodies some of the extreme character contradictions Leigh is famous for, it’s not meant to. In the end, Vera is slightly too good.


Famous for using the real-life experiences of his actors as inspiration for his characters, Leigh has always excelled at portraying a certain type of late 20th century working stiff as sublimely genuine as he or she is genuinely ridiculous. As Chef Aubrey, the cringingly pretentious culinary clod in “Life Is Sweet,” Timothy Spall was heartbreaking for his hopeful cluelessness. In “Secrets & Lies,” Brenda Blethyn’s Cynthia was as slatternly and hysterical as she was generous and kind.

But there’s nothing funny about Vera. Nothing about her makes you want to turn away. Maybe it’s because “Vera Drake” is tucked far enough back in the last century that its characters wind up swaddled in a sort of nostalgic dignity. Set in a pre-Thatcher Britain but produced in a post-Thatcher world, “Vera Drake” feels like a paean to a bygone society.

Bursting through her door to prepare dinner for her family, having spent the day cleaning other people’s houses and tending to other people’s needs, Vera starts, rather amazingly, to sing. The effect is disconcerting -- we’re not used to seeing this combination of poverty and contentment on film, particularly not in a Leigh movie. And it’s not like Leigh to home in on a character so unsullied by society, either, let alone place her at the center of his narrative. Even his happiest families, like the one in 1990’s tender “Life Is Sweet,” have more than their share of modern mortifications -- in their case, eating disorders, depression, promiscuity, general malaise and failure.

Vera’s family, however -- which includes a dull, mouth-breathing daughter, Ethel (Alex Kelly); an exuberant, nattily dressed son, Sid (Daniel Mays); an adoring, cheerful and hard-working husband, Stan (Phil Davis); and, eventually, an endearingly stiff, awkward and eternally grateful son-in-law, Reg (Eddie Marsdan) -- lives together harmoniously in a tiny flat so dark and airless you can practically smell the upholstery. Five years after the war, they’re still swapping war stories and Italian stockings in exchange for empathy and sugar. Rather than dwell on the deprivation, they look on the bright side. They are genuinely happy together. In fact, the family is so enshrouded in their cozy happiness that you could never imagine, as Katrin Cartlidge’s character quipped in “Career Girls,” that “on a clear day you could see the class struggle” from there.

The movie’s bad seeds -- a childhood friend of Vera’s called Lily (Ruth Sheen) and Stan’s sister-in-law Joyce (Heather Craney) -- are so distorted as to be monstrous. The film’s contempt for Lily is justified, you can tell from a mile off that she’s no friend to Vera. But poor Joyce is put through the ringer of Leigh’s judgment for wanting a washing machine. Vera’s family, though, is blameless. When the men smoke, they are not being self-destructive or disenfranchised or despairing -- they’re just being sociable. They’re innocent.

Innocence, as far as I can tell, is the cornerstone of the movie, but beyond recognizing it and taking it in, I’m not quite sure what we’re supposed to do with it. Rarely has Leigh varnished his working-class characters so gloopily or removed them so fully from responsibility. He seems to be saying that they lived in a time that allowed goodness like hers to flourish -- though, as ever, his upper classes are unfeeling and carelessly destructive; and those who aspire to the middle class are pretentious clods. Frank (Adrian Scarborough) has a demanding wife, a big house, new appliances and no children. Craney plays that most thankless of Leigh role, essentially the childless perfectionist.


Ultimately, “Vera Drake” feels like a long defense of Vera Drake. Even if you agree with Leigh’s politics, and especially with his indignation at the fact that the law is harder on those who can’t afford to get around it, he has really stacked the deck.

Leigh has never disguised his ideology, but he has also rarely let it get in the way of reality. In this case, though, he’s conscribed his title character to martyrdom. But the question that keeps hanging is what, exactly, is Leigh proposing. When the law finally catches up to Vera, it’s because one of the girls she’s operated on nearly dies, but doesn’t. That recovery is an interesting choice for Leigh, who has never been one to shy away from the consequences of even the most well-intended actions.

As lovely and heartbreaking as Staunton is to watch, there’s something about Leigh’s attachment to his politics that leaches some complexity from the experience. Ultimately, “Vera Drake,” which won best film honors at the Venice Film Festival, belongs entirely to its actors, whose collective portrayal of a bygone generation is remarkable. In many ways, it’s easy to see why Leigh was so thoroughly taken by them; Staunton, Davis, Mays, Kelly and Marsden radiate such love they practically glow in the dingy murk. Ultimately, the film is more of a portrait than a story, and as such it is finely wrought and compelling, but the airbrush is overkill.


‘Vera Drake’

MPAA rating: R for depiction of strong thematic material

Times guidelines: Scenes involving abortion and rape, though nothing too terribly explicit.

Imelda Staunton...Vera Drake

Phil Davis...Stan

Alex Kelly...Ethel

Daniel Mays...Sid

Eddie Marsan...Reg

Fine Line Features, Alain Sarde and UK Film Council present, in association with Inside Track Films, a Simon Channing-Williams production Writer-director Mike Leigh. Executive producers Gail Egan, Robert Jones, Duncan Reid, Christine Gozlan. Producers Simon Channing-Williams, Alain Sarde. Cinematographer Dick Pope. Music Andrew Dickson. Editor Jim Clark. Production design Eve Stewart. Costume design Jacqueline Durran. Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

At selected theaters.