Directed by: Mike Leigh
Written by:Mike Leigh
Starring: Imelda Staunton, Richard Graham, Eddie Marsan, Anna Keaveney, Lesley Manville, Jim Broadbent
Released: February 10, 2005
Grade: A

There are few directors who capture the emotion of people better than Mike Leigh.  My first Leigh experience was 1996’s Secrets & Lies which earned 5 Academy Award nominations, including best picture.  He’s only made a handful of films since with the two most impressive being Topsy-Turvy and All Or Nothing.

Vera Drake (Staunton) is an elderly woman living in a tiny, run-down apartment with her husband, George (Graham), her son, Reg (Marsan), and her daughter Nellie (Keaveney).  Incredibly polite, she can’t help herself sometimes – she just loves helping people out.  Her latest challenge is to find her incredibly shy daughter a husband and she thinks she’s found just the right guy.

Soon though, her uncomplicated life will meet a very abrupt change.  Unbeknown to her family, Vera has been performing abortions for poor young women.  Such a practice is illegal but many young girls cannot afford the 150 pound charge to get it done properly in a doctor’s surgery.  Vera thinks she’s “helping them out”.  When one of Vera’s abortions goes wrong and the girl ends up clinging to life, the police arrive on her doorstep…

A controversial topic, Vera Drake is perfectly balanced.  It does not preach to the audience nor does it favour any one side.  You’ll understand Vera and sympathise with her and yet you’ll understand the police and their motives for doing what they do.  It’s a strong screenplay and Leigh’s direction is also impressive.  Instead of focusing the entire film on Vera, he occasionally breaks away to give us a glimpse into the life of another character.  It all adds up.

Like most other Leigh films, this really is about the people.  Forget glossed up Hollywood phonies, these characters are passionately real and you can’t help but laugh and feel sorry for them at the same.  Take Vera’s daughter Nellie for example.  Wonderfully played by Anna Keaveney, she’s a typical Leigh character.  What I find interesting is that Leigh did not tell the cast (except for Imelda Staunton) that this film was about abortion.  They were given an abbreviated script and didn’t find out until the scenes in question were shot.

Of course, what everyone is talking about is the performance of Imelda Staunton.  Winner of a host of critics’ awards, she’ll undoubtedly lose to Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) at the Oscars in a fortnight.  It’s a shame because Staunton’s performance is the best by an actress this year.  I don’t know how she harnessed the emotional energy to pull this off.  The final half hour will be gut-wrenching for some.

Just last night, Vera Drake was voted the best British film of the year at the British Academy Awards.  I couldn’t think of more worthy winner.