18 October 2004 | gregsrants
The most powerful female performance of the year
I don't think I need to fear rolling pins being thrown in my general direction when I say that powerful women roles are few and far between in Moviedom. That is not to say that there aren't any, it's just that it is rare for a female performance to blow you away in any projector driven screening. This is due more to Hollywood's reluctance to create interesting and powerful roles for the female elite than the actresses' ability themselves. Where studio honchos salivate over the next Jack Nicholson powerhouse or Anthony Hopkins costume drama, there are far far too few Charlize Theron's Monster to counter.
However, leave it up to Mike Leigh to try and correct this trend. In 1996, he wrote and directed the wonderful Secrets & Lies, and his writing for the women leads was so strong, that the Academy awarded nominations for both Best Actress (Brenda Blethyn) and Supporting Actress (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). Now in 2004, Leigh has given us the strongest performance by a male or female of the year with Imelda Staunton as the title character in the new film Vera Drake.
Vera Drake is the story a family in 1950's London. Vera is the Motherhead and she is the jack-of-all-trades within the community. Her days are spend stopping in on elderly people to help them with their lunch, working a various estates as a cleaning lady, slaving at a light bulb producing factory and most notably, as a caring individual who helps young and poor women terminate unwanted pregnancies.
However, if you were to ask Vera Drake what her role was, she would probably admit to being a mother first a caregiver to her husband and two children.
A selfless woman who has little time for herself and therefore little time to digest the consequences of her illegal actions. Vera is goes about every bit of her business, whether she is down on her knees cleaning the brass around a fireplace or helping a woman perform an abortion without a frown and usually with a smile on her face, a whistling tune on her lips and the kettle on the stove.
Vera's family are equally lovable individuals. Her husband, Geroge (Phil Davis) works with his brother at an automobile repair shop. Her son Sid works as the local tailor and her daughter is a soft spoken lass who falls for a local man Vera invites over to dinner as a kind gesture. Together they make the quintessential family unit that we all envisioned 1950's households to encompass.
But when a local girl has a bad reaction to a Drake endorsed abortion, their world is turned on end. An investigation by the local police lead them to Vera's door on the night of celebration due to her daughters engagement. And as the police take Vera to the local booking station for a statement and sentencing, Imelda Staunton does her best work through the tears and expressions mirroring the suffering at the anguish she has put her family through.
Vera Drake might just be the best picture to be viewed by this critic this year. The characters are so robust and real that every time Vera put the kettle on for a cup of tea, you would think she is doing it for everyone in the audience. We become captivated by their lives and interested in the effects the events have on the family unit. The writing is crisp and you can imagine these people saying these things to one another a gift not often bestowed upon moviegoers in such a powerful form.
Director Mike Leigh deserves most of the credit. He transforms Vera in front of us and manages to take an illegal action that is generally taboo in conversation and shows us the innocent side of the argument where rich people pay large sums of money to go specialists, but the poor and equally needy require the services of a local underground network. As someone who sits on one side of the abortion issue, I was amazed at the conclusion of the film how non-preaching and argumentative the film ended up being. Vera goes about her business like a friend helping out someone in need. She deals not in the politics or the societal view of her task but rather as someone just doing what is best for those found in situations where this solution is the only viable option.
Leigh's writing and directing however are overshadowed by the incredible performance by Imelda Staunton. This maybe the first film that I can remember where a female should win an Academy Award for a role that didn't harbor any speeches into the camera or voice over dramatization of the situation. With that, I give Vera Drake a very strong recommendation.