20 November 2004 | desperateliving
Along with Abbas Kiarostami, Mike Leigh must be the finest film artist now living. He sets up the story here very smartly; it's Altmanesque the way that the lives intertwine. And like Altman, the film has an observational style (the camera sits still as people walk about the house), though without his cynical humor. (There is one comic relief character, however, who Vera's son measures for tailoring.) The story is craftily put-together -- Leigh, for all his realism, isn't above cinema: he's not against creating a scene. His entire movie is a build-up to individual looks and faces; one especially fine scene is laid out incredibly well: we see a car pull up outside; inside, we get the news that someone is going to have a baby; then a knock at the door... What sets him apart from many so-called realists is that he's not an inept moviemaker. Even though a number of the scenes are complete of themselves and incredibly well-wrought, none of them are "scenes"; the only hint of cinematic flair that Leigh indulges in are the recurring motifs of heavenly music. The film is not traditional realism in terms of acting, either -- the actors all have a very distinct look that has to do with the way they're shot, but each character, each actor, seems alive in such a way that isn't theatrical or exaggerated or false, but still animated. There is an unflinching dedication to emotional consistency and detail (such as the mechanics of the abortions), but it always remains humane (without ever turning sentimental); when one woman is raped, Leigh doesn't linger on the scene, he doesn't really even show anything.
Leigh makes few political points in the film. (No doubt conservatives would see the film as a horror story, this woman creeping around from house to house.) It is not an "issue" movie. It is much more about families and people, and how they support one of their own; it could just as easily about someone accused of child molestation, or who assisted suicides. The miracle of the film is that the catalyst for the emotional breakdown, the abortions, aren't just a device, they're a whole, complete film in their own right. It's what gives certain images such immediate, painful power. His film, planned as it is, consists of events that are completely random and unforeseeable to the characters, even though we, the audience expect them (it only serves to make them more devastating that we see it coming). We see an abortion; we see a couple get engaged; we see a rape; we see that someone is expecting a baby. Leigh has empathy for everyone in the film, and with the exception of three women -- Vera's sister in law, the woman who procures Vera's "patients," and the mother of one of the girls who she performs an abortion for -- he doesn't turn anyone into a villain. Even one horrific psychiatrist interview grows into something where we realize, haughty as he is, he's not exactly "out to get" this girl who wants help (although the scene hits home the difference involved in getting abortions performed by doctors and on the street).
Sometimes the film is a little too obvious, as when Vera's son can't deal with what she's done, effectively sticking the knife in her (and us). And you could complain that Staunton, in the second half, is ordered to put on a blank face, as if she's had a stroke. But it's a simple view to see her as a smiling happy person in the first part and then a wrecked creature in the second -- there is always something interesting in her performance, completely aside from the looks on her face (one such, when the police ask to see her, is the best image of the human face in years). In the beginning she uses her teeth in a very interesting way, and though she's referred to as a woman with a heart of gold (and while I'm not saying she isn't) there's something more in her performance, something indescribable -- it's why she never stops to comfort the women she "helps out." What prevents the film from being a display of the miserable, like Lars von Trier at his worst, is Leigh's innate connection to the legacy of the great humanists, that of hope -- not false, optimistic hope, but hope in something bigger (and more intimate): the human soul. 10/10