review for Vera Drake on AllMovie

Vera Drake (2004)
by Josh Ralske review

Filmmaker Mike Leigh generally creates such richly drawn characters and pays such attention to the intimate details of their lives that it's hard to imagine one of his films focusing on a single issue, especially not in a pedantic way. While he often engages social issues in his work, characterizations of such depth and vibrancy wouldn't seem to allow for didacticism. On the surface, Vera Drake, with its ennobling portrait of a saintly woman who performs abortions, would seem to break with this longstanding tradition in the filmmaker's work. Despite its typically strong performances, the film can easily be dismissed as feminist propaganda by those who don't share Leigh's political bent, or dismissed as a "movie of the week" by those who continually underestimate his gifts as a visual stylist, because, like John Cassavetes, he focuses so intensely on the work of his actors. One almost wishes that Vera, as magnificently portrayed by Imelda Staunton, was less angelic, and more like the brittle, deeply flawed heroines of other Leigh films, like Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) in Secrets & Lies. But when one looks more deeply at the work, it's clear that Vera, for all her charity, is a naïve woman, completely unsuited to dealing with the negative consequences of her good intentions. Along with the complex reactions of her close-knit family, the terrified Vera's inability to defend her actions gives the film a tragic resonance. Leigh's postwar London, meanwhile, brims with life that goes on beyond the frame. The set and costume design wonderfully evoke the characters' subsistence living, and each woman Vera tends to has an individual trauma etched in her face and movements. Leigh's ability to relay that each character has his or her own unspoken narrative is powerfully cinematic, and Vera Drake easily stands alongside his best work.