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London Calling

Despite the odds, Mike Leigh's 'Vera Drake' wars quietly against injustice by doing good

By Richard von Busack

IN HIS new film, Vera Drake, Mike Leigh shows us the slow destruction of a good-hearted old woman. Vera is the Mother Courage of her block, visiting the sick and the wretched. Vera (Imelda Staunton) is a cleaning lady with a secret life; she really sees no difference between heating water for a homemade abortion and putting the kettle on for one of her endless pots of tea.

Even before we learn of Vera Drake's practice and realize the risk of the law finding out about her, we can tell something bad will happen. All it takes is familiarity with the biblical principle "to those who have little, even that little will be taken away."

Leigh's view of the year 1950 is of a muted time. An Irish harp tinkles on the soundtrack. The lighting is dim and low-wattage throughout. Secondhand daylight filters through the tenement windows. The camera seems to be shooting through an old lady's brown stocking.

In the same way that the Drakes talk about the war in hushed tones, as if the enemy was still listening in, the colors and the lighting in Vera Drake look as if the blackout had never been lifted.

To his great credit, Leigh doesn't make the past look like an antique shop. The writer/director is as always best at creating a London neighborhood from a few bricks, a few stairwells and sitting rooms. His people repeat the rounds of their lives, filling teapots, trudging up staircases, taking on and pulling off housecoats. Even the preparations for the abortions Vera performs are deliberate. She works a rubbery, sickly pink bar of carbolic soap on a cheese grater, filling a sink with disinfectant.

Staunton's skill is in not making this perfect humbleness too much to watch. In her rare moment of ease, cuddling in bed with her husband, Stan (Phil Davis), she delivers a salty laugh when thinking of her very plain daughter Ethel's suitor, Reg (Eddie Marsan), a genuine sad sack.

Five years after the war, the Drakes are slowly prospering. Naturally, the war still haunts the them. In an early scene, they talk quietly about the casualties: who had been where, who'd been through what and who never talked about it afterward.

Stan and Vera's son, Sid (Daniel Mays), who had been stationed in Germany after the war, mutters, "They got it worse over there." A few friends got away, emigrating to Australia. Someone murmurs, "That's a long way, isn't it, Australia?"

Leigh delineates the shortages, the black-marketing, the efficient and unquestioned force by which the police and the courts bulldoze Vera. Watch this, and you get a visual understanding of why Orwell's original title for his best known novel was 1948.

Still, little comic scenes bubble up throughout. The sensational actress Ruth Sheen (from High Hopes) plays Vera's friend Lily, a shrewd go-between who refers the girls in trouble to Vera. Leigh's affection for Dickens shines in such small characters as Lily.

Watching Sid, a breezy apprentice in a tailor shop, provides some humorous relief. You relish the way he chats up a thick Irish peasant (Chris O'Dowd) and makes him feel like a champ in his new wedding suit. After work, Sid surveys the crowd at a nightclub: it's the first competently choreographed swing dance sequence we've had in years.

Sid is the one who is the most harshly critical of his mum when the trouble begins. Still, you realize there's rebellion growing in him and young men and women like him; when the 1950s and '60s come around, the British class code will be cracked open so that it'll never go unquestioned again.

In Sid's ambitions and cheekiness we get the bright side of this story. You need that hope when you see the system lower itself on an old woman. Vera Drake is naturalistic melodrama at its finest—too pure to be immensely sad. Leigh isolates this greatly compassionate woman from her family and friends. This is when acting craft takes over. The movie finally rests in Staunton's face. Her character's life is legible from beginning to end, as injustice triumphs completely.

Though set in the winter of 1950, Vera Drake is boldly topical. Its subject is how abortion will continue, no matter how stern the laws against it are. Anti-abortion laws, like so many laws, are chains for the poor and cobwebs for the rich. Idealists long to preserve the supposed child in a mother's womb. Unfortunately, abortion idealists, like all idealists, often pass on the cost of their idealism downstream. And they sometimes don't care who they drown.

Vera Drake (R; 125 min.), directed and written by Michael Leigh, photographed by Dick Pope and starring Imelda Staunton, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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