British auteur Mike Leigh's filmography is rife with keenly observed portraits of protagonists trapped in the precarious thickets of life – from the bleak portrait of 1993's Naked to the unblinking dissection of a family torn apart by privities in 1996's Secrets & Lies.
His latest effort, the masterful Vera Drake, is no exception; writer/director Leigh examines the thorny issue of abortion in post World War II England and the explosive effects of one woman's secret upon her tightly knit and loving family.
Doting wife, loving mother and methodical back-alley abortionist – the heroine of Vera Drake is a woman of many contradictions. Employed as a domestic by area families, Vera (2004 Best Actress nominee Imelda Staunton) spends her days happily cleaning and looking after her ailing mother. Living with her husband, George (Richard Graham) and her two grown children, Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly), Vera also freelances as an abortionist or she terms it, "helping out girls in trouble."
Vera's life takes an unexpected turn as one of the girls she helps suddenly develops complications and seeks medical attention. The subsequent chain of events causes her family's tranquil existence to implode and forces them to re-examine their perceptions of the woman at the center of their lives.
Leigh's subtle, powerful screenplay doesn't shy away from presenting a straightforward, naturalistic narrative; the repressed British manner of the early Fifties informs his work, which creates yet another layer of complexity. It's to the filmmakers' credit that no judgments are passed – these characters are allowed to play out their lives without Leigh or any of the actors skewing things with political baggage.
The argument could be made, of course, that Leigh's creation of the extremely liberal-minded Vera is a statement in and of itself, but he merely forms the character; I don't believe he forces any one idea upon the audience and believe me, there's certainly more than one perspective contained within the film.
Politics aside, Staunton wholly deserves the acting plaudits heaped upon her; her performance as the fiercely proud Vera is a wonder. Staunton's heartwrenching scene with Graham at the police station brings a lump to the throat – throughout Vera Drake, she's mesmerizing and it's one of the great performances from 2004. The rest of the cast is likewise excellent – Leigh has always had an unerring eye for choosing actors well and this film is no exception.
By putting a seemingly harmless face on the hot-button topic of abortion, Leigh forces viewers to reconsider outright dismissal of this long polarizing subject. Vera Drake shakes you to the core and leaves you thinking – it's a breathtaking, brilliant film with a performance from Staunton that should not be missed.
Presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, Vera Drake looks good, save for the high amount of noise and grain in the darker scenes. There's no edge enhancement or artifacts otherwise and overall, this is a decent transfer that shows off the period design.
Despite there being nothing but score and dialogue on the soundtrack, New Line has included Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 - go figure. As a result, the thick London accents come through loud and clear and Andrew Dickson's elegiac score sounds appropriately smooth and mournful. Dolby 2.0 stereo is also onboard.
For the amount of awards season attention Vera Drake received, the total lack of extras is confounding - not even a commentary track or behind-the-scenes featurette? C'mon, New Line - Leigh and company created a brilliant film; let 'em talk about it. What is offered are a few trailers - Birth, Dancer in the Dark, Before Night Falls and the theatrical trailer for Vera Drake. All trailers are anamorphic widescreen.
No matter what your political leanings, Mike Leigh's sobering, involving Vera Drake is a masterpiece of familial tension; with help from Staunton's incredible performance, this improvised drama is one that can be watched and re-watched, simply to savor the brilliance of those in front of and behind the camera. Highly recommended.