A new Mike Leigh film is always something of an event, invariably preceded by a flurry of press coverage and curiosity about what the leading British film auteur has come up with in his latest portrayal of British society. Vera Drake is probably his most hyped film so far, thanks largely to several awards that Imelda Staunton, who plays the eponymous heroine in the movie, has been winning in festivals such as the Venice Film Festival, where the film also won the Golden Lion. Right now, Mike Leigh is the jewel in British cinema’s crown – a fact compounded by Vera Drake’s recent sweeping success at the 2005 BAFTAs.
The prime matter of his films is British social relations, and the contrast between the upper echelons of society and those who scrape a living at the bottom of the social ladder. Leigh is sometimes accused of making caricatures of people, and Vera Drake will no doubt give more ammunition to his critics. Looking at his films from the perspective of class struggle is, however, missing the point, because Leigh is really interested in analysing the minutiae of everyday life, like a scientist with a microscope.
Vera Drake marks an improvement on the more or less sado-masochistic exercise that was All or Nothing. Leigh showed he can do period well with Topsy Turvy, and Vera Drake confirms this. This film is an impressionist interpretation of grim London in the aftermath of the war. Drake is the perennially perky housewife and cleaner who splits her time between her family and a string of neighbours she diligently looks after, and the posh house where she works (and which Leigh uses as counterpoint to the Cockney squalor in which she lives).
In short, Drake is something of an urban saint, a symbol of working class solidarity, who also believes it right to help pregnant women with no means of terminating their unwanted pregnancies. It’s exactly this, her boundless self-sacrificing for other people, that proves her downfall.
The first half of the film carries most of its weight: watching Drake go from task to task in her beatific way is strangely mesmerising. Every scene and sequence is so clinically designed, the acting and the dialogues so precisely timed, that the film sometimes looks more real than reality – to the point where you start asking yourself whether you are being manipulated by the director. The second half feels like a different movie, a bit more loose, perhaps a reflection of Drake’s own disintegration during her Way of the Cross, the Roman Emperors here being the cold British legal system, depicted as a device to oppress the poor.
Vera Drake is a film that adopts a very feminine point of view, highlighting the inferior social status that women had and, to a certain extent, still do. It also sees Leigh perfecting his one-man genre. It would be interesting, though, to see him making a completely different movie with his next project lest he becomes a gritty realist version of Merchant Ivory fare. Still, Vera Drake is riveting and beautifully crafted, an exquisite art-house soap opera that gives us an idea of what domestic drama on television could be like.