The subject of director Mike Leigh's new film, "Vera Drake", is one which has separated opinion for many years: abortion. Some people believe abortion is unnatural and against God's wishes, others believe that it should be allowed and that if circumstances stand in the way of raising a child with the proper love and care, then it should be their right to have one. But wherever you go, nearly everyone has a view or opinion on the subject and it's this split opinion that is the catalyst for this award-winning film. The titular character, impeccably played by Imelda Staunton, is a working class mother of two, working primarily as a cleaning lady for the wealthy people of post-war London. She has a heart of gold, and spends everyday looking out for those around her, from her terminally ill mother, her neighbours who are also battling against ill health and poverty, as well as her own family. But, Vera has a secret. She has another job on the side, an unpaid one and one that is both highly dangerous and highly illegal. She performs abortions on young girls who cannot afford to lawfully pay for the procedure. Vera, being the kind lady that she is does them for nothing, just the knowledge that she has helped these girls out of trouble. Of course, Vera, though ultimately knowing that the act of abortion is illegal and unnatural, still performs the procedures, as she knows that most of the girls cannot cope with the pressures of motherhood at such young ages, thinking of it more like breathing new life into the girls and giving them a second chance at life, rather than taking away a unborn child. But, after one such girl becomes gravely ill after Vera visits her, the police are brought in to find out what has happened. The strength of the film lies in Leigh's measured direction and compelling screenplay. I myself have never watched any of Leigh's previous work, sad for me, but from what I saw here, I was mightily impressed. The story is expertly crafted with care and skill by Leigh, who sets the film up not as an argument or statement over his feelings over abortion, nor does it overly try to explain or deal with the political protests, but rather delves into the drama behind all debates, and paint a picture of family, love, class divides and human emotions, all of which he uses together to concoct a painfully affecting and emotionally telling tale. Leigh never means for us to see Vera as a criminal as some might, but instead sees her as a concerned, gentle and warm soul, eager to help out these girls with the same devotion and generosity she shows to those around her. And by the end, Leigh leaves us sympathizing and shedding a tear as Vera's withered soul disintegrates before us. Leigh's attention to detail for the period is also staggering, with everything from 1950's London life in all it's glory, such as the old Typhoo teabag boxes, to those knitted green tea cosies that we all loved, as well as the dark, damp back streets are all perfectly recreated with the help of cinematographer Dick Pope and art director Ed Walsh. The undoubted star of the film is Imelda Staunton, who is utterly compelling as Vera. She perfectly embodies her characteristics, with all the graciousness, wit, charm and kindness of Vera simply flowing through every part of her body. Her screen presence is exceptional, particularly when the Vera we have come to care for suddenly dies before our eyes as the police explain implications of her actions and Staunton magnificently transforms from the bubbly, generous lady to a broken, dislocated and frozen figure in a matter of seconds, her eyes filling with tears as she struggles to convince herself that what she has done is indeed a crime. It's one of the finest female performances of the last five years in my opinion, and would have been deserving of that Oscar back in February, if it hadn't been for Hilary Swanks' mesmerising turn in "Million Dollar Baby." The remainder of the cast too give fantastic performances right across the board, from the superb Phil Davis as Vera's loving husband, Peter Wight as the understanding yet firm arresting detective, and Ruth Sheen as Lily, Vera's ditzy yet slightly sinister friend. The only small quibbles I had with the film was that I found some of the more intimate scenes with Vera and her family are slightly longwinded and a bit saccharine for my "male" tastes. In addition, the ending seems somewhat hasty to all that has gone before it and Leigh suddenly grounds all the superb work to a very abrupt halt. But these are very minor problems to an otherwise flawless piece of drama.
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