Sunday, September 03, 2006

Vera Drake (2004)

Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004)

I may very well consider Mike Leigh's Berlin Film Festival winning Vera Drake a modern masterpiece where all the elements of filmmaking coherently jive to present a touching and arguably objective debate on the moral dilemmas surrounding abortion. It's quite easy to make a film that is thick on issues but it's very hard, almost impossible, to make a film that discusses issues and still remain right in the middle without being labeled as being unopinionated or plain cowardly. Vera Drake achieves that impossibility by pinning down the moral dilemma of abortions in the motherly face of a pudgy old woman, Vera (Imelda Staunton), who is caught in trouble portraying conflicting roles of her life: as a mother, as a wife, and as an abortionist.

It's a hefty film that keeps you comfortable at first, then seeps into your consciousness the harsh realities of post-war London where families are finally together and just enjoying the moments that they have with each other. Vera's family consists of her husband Stan (Phil Davis), a veteran from the first World War, and her two children, Ethel (Alex Kelly) and Sid (Daniel Mays). A newcomer to their residential flats is Reg (Eddie Marsan), a rather morose fellow who is delightfully welcomed into the Drake household and who falls for the Drakes' mousy daughter.

Vera earns her money by cleaning the residences of middle to upper class households, and this is where Leigh introduces an interesting side plot that exposes the class differences with regards to abortion. In one of Vera's cleaning assignments, Susan (Sally Hawkins), the daughter of a top government official, is introduced and is later given a sidestory wherein she is raped by a date and subsequently becomes pregnant. She wants the baby undone, and goes to a psychiatrist, then to a doctor, and pays a handsome sum of money to secretly have her abortion. No further words from her, just a fleeting image on how such need for abortion infects all classes, but the consequences, the dignity lost, the procedure is very much different. Vera's patients range from a "darkie" laborer to middle class women whose pregnancy might cause dishonor. Her procedure is simple: she uses soap which she grates and dissolves in hot water, then she pumps the soapy water to the uterus, and in a matter of days, the patient bleeds again.

But the plot thickens when one of Vera's patients gets hospitalized right after her procedure. She is charged with the felony and the film starts to put on an emotional weight that exceeded my expectations. Just look at the devastating change in Imelda Staunton's face. How the cheerful lines in her forehead and cheeks suddenly droop and reveal an entirely different person. It's a moving performance that shook me, and Leigh knows how to utilize such in the most effective manner. Leigh lights Staunton's face with a dreadful sympathy and each wrinkle, each movement of Staunton's sorrowful blue eyes, each change of her lips' shape is emphasized in heartbreaking degree.

Vera's story is a tragedy that transcends whatever side of the coin you belong to with regards to the issue of abortion. You may label Vera as naive but still criminally liable. You may sympathize with Vera as an unfortunate victim of her own kindness and magnanimity. But you cannot disclaim that Vera is not a good person, and that each heartache, each probable tear, or each wish that Vera be exonerated due to her uninformed sense of community service, is a result of the immeasurable care and compassion that Leigh and Staunton has infused to the character of Vera Drake.

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