It’s difficult to say if Mike Leigh’s movies have become slower and more obvious or I’ve just become more irritated by their longeurs and the predictable trajectories of their characters. It could also be that I’m not getting the joke. Are the hunched and shambling working-class drudges who populate his films meant to be amusing (the British actors are in clover playing such flamboyantly pathetic creatures), or are we supposed to be terribly moved by their quiet desperation and/or stoicism in the face of economic depravation and urban blight? The best things in his movies are the bits right on that border: characters so tiny and miserable and grateful for any crumb of mercy from an indifferent universe that we have to giggle. But is Leigh aiming for such a multitiered response? Or do his actors—great caricaturists, all—nudge his films into areas he isn’t fully able to explore?
These questions go to the heart of my difficulty with Leigh’s newest marathon of misery, Vera Drake (Fine Line Features). The title character (Imelda Staunton) is presented as a hunched and shambling drudge—and also a radiant martyr—and also the very model of English working-class repression. The film is set in 1950, when England is still licking its war wounds, and Vera makes her daily rounds from squalid gray flat to squalid gray flat, bringing good cheer to the poor and ill and bucking up her elderly mum. Then she cleans the house of a wealthy family, scrubbing the mantle while we contemplate, in the corner, a large harp. (Nothing against harpists, but is there any more obvious symbol of haute-bourgeois overrefinement than a harp in a sitting room?) From time to time, Vera makes her way to some rundown out-of-the-way flat with her special kit: a metal grater, soap, and a hose-syringe. “Get a towel, dear,” she tells a frightened young woman. “Take your knickers off.”
There is something extremely creepy about Staunton’s Vera: She moves and speaks with mechanical cheerfulness, seeming entirely dissociated from her labors; and she’s incapable of uttering anything except soothing platitudes to scared and despondent women. (“Have a cappatea,” is her usual response. “You’ll soon be right as rain.”) Her family has no inkling of her second career as an abortionist, and in some ways she has no inkling, either: Although she takes no money for her work and views what she’s doing as “helping poor girls” with nowhere else to turn, she wears the same expression when terminating a pregnancy as she does when cleaning a mantle.
For the first half of Vera Drake, it seems as if Leigh and his leading actress (who is, like all Leigh’s actors, a collaborator in scripting the film) are going to explore this chasm between who Vera is and what she does. Leigh is obviously aware that, whatever you think of a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, the procedure is a brutal one, likely to leave physical and emotional scars. He doesn’t give that idea short shrift: He lingers on the discomfort (and, in some cases despair) of Vera’s patients and on her inability to comfort them. But he has a strong political point to make about the heroism of abortion providers, and even stronger ideas about the psychology of the working class. He keeps Vera wholly inarticulate, even when she’s being interrogated by a police inspector, even when she’s required to defend her actions in court. As Vera Drake proceeds—very, very slowly, I should add—along its linear path, Leigh and Staunton seem like prisoners of their own plodding naturalism.
Leigh’s method of working with actors—allowing them to research their own parts for months and improvise much of their dialogue before a script is hammered together—produces amazing bits of business, dialogues breathtaking in their intimacy (these actors are immersed), and also a lot of dead ends. And that’s what happens with Vera Drake: It dead-ends. The characters behave exactly the way you expect they will, given Leigh’s ideas about class and its affect on people’s very humanity. Vera’s mechanic husband, Stan (Phil Davis), her chip-off-the-old-frump daughter, Ethel (Alex Kelly), and the grave but earnest schlump Reg (Eddie Marsan) with whom Vera has fixed her daughter up, remain steadfast in their love: working-class good-’uns. Her smart, entrepreneurial son, Sid (Daniel Mays), has more conventional morality and more doubts: His first impulse is to reject his mum. Borderline bad-’un: could go either way. Stan’s lookalike brother, Frank (Adrian Scarborough), is a helpless prisoner of his youngish, dyed-blond, upwardly mobile wife, Joyce (Heather Craney)—one of Leigh’s standard bourgeois-materialist harridans.
This is the point—it comes in all reviews of Leigh movies, pro or con—where I say, “But the acting is great!” So: The acting is great! I’m incapable of doing justice to the sight of Kelly’s Ethel and Marsan’s Reg a-courting in the park: a pair of morose hunchbacks, so introverted (and primed to expect so little from life) that their engagement is arrived at via monosyllables: “D’you wanna?” “Whaccha reckin’?” “Yes.” Peck, peck. May’s Sid, who works in a men’s store, has a scene that is classic Mike Leigh, in which he deftly massages a middle-class customer’s heartfelt desire to look like a swell at an important function: brilliant! Leigh has devised a subplot—really, a counter-plot—in which the daughter (Sally Hawkins) of the well-to-do family for whom Vera cleans is date-raped. After discreet inquiries (a remarkable lunch dialogue with a steely acquaintance played by Fenella Woolgar) and a lot of money, she’s able to have an abortion under humane and hygienic circumstances. However schematic, the scene in which she’s efficiently but sensitively probed by a clinic psychiatrist (Allan Corduner, who played Sullivan in Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy) is a jewel. Note-perfect, too, are the scenes in which Vera is interrogated by an inspector (Peter Wight) whose essential decency doesn’t interfere with his duty under the Offense Against a Person Act of 1861 (and vice-versa).
I wish I could be more effusive about Staunton, who has won (and will win) all sorts of awards, and whose beatitude is indeed a thing to behold. In the last third of Vera Drake, the camera holds on her earthen-sprite face for long moments, but for all the character’s stricken awareness, there’s something missing: some spark that Vera has grasped the dimensions of her situation, some tragic stature. With her tiny chirps and homilies and that reliable stoop, she seems poised to get big Cockney char-lady laughs. But you don’t laugh at martyr-saints. At least, I don’t think you do.