Saturday, February 11, 2012

30 Days of Oscar Day 18: Vera Drake

Movie: Vera Drake
Year: 2005
Nominations: Best Director - Mike Leigh, Best Actress - Imelda Staunton, Best Original Screenplay - Mike Leigh

Wins/Snubs: Hillary Swank and Clint Eastwood took Actress and Director for Million Dollar Baby, which I dislike, so I'm fairly biased thinking Staunton did a better job thank Swank (or Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine).  Luckily, Eternal Sunshine did take Original Screenplay.  

Given that Mike Leigh uses a lot of improvisation and immerses himself and his actors in their roles, I'm surprised this movie ever got made as well as it did.  Vera Drake follows the title character, played brilliantly by Staunton, on her rounds - cleaning rich houses in the mornings, checking on sick friends, her invalid mother, and still getting home to have tea with her husband, adult son and daughter.  They live together in a tiny apartment in post-WWII London, just struggling to get by.  Vera is admired for her kind, helpful heart.  Only her childhood friend Lily also knows that Vera helps young girls in trouble - by performing free abortions.  In these, too, Vera is kind, efficient and helpful.  Unfortunately, one procedure has poor consequences and the girl ends up in the hospital, and the girl's mother names Vera.  When the police arrive at her apartment, they're celebrating her shy daughter's engagement, and Vera is more upset about ruining her family's party than by the fact that she's being arrested (and has been found out after 20 years of helping girls).  She's sentenced to 30 months in prison.

There is a secondary story following Sally Hawkins as the daughter of one of Vera's employers who is raped by a date, and gets pregnant.  She goes to a doctor and is forced to explain to a psychiatrist why she must have an abortion - which is legal under very specific circumstances.  It shows the other side of the process that really isn't available to the women Vera helps for free (though Lily as the go-between charges a little).  The look at what women had to endure to get an abortion at that time is thorough, from the fear and expense and risk to the shame, pain, and loss.  
Imelda Staunton delivered an amazing performance - she goes from living a relatively optimistic existence, knowing she is working hard, taking care of her family, and helping people before the arrest, to nearly catatonic when she is talking to her husband after the arrest (above photo).  It's an impressive change - her world is shattered and even though she was quick witted before, she can barely articulate her name during questioning and has trouble remembering how long she's been helping the girls.  Staunton deserved her nomination, as did Leigh, both for directing and writing, as the film is really well-paced, draws you into her small existence and makes you feel for her, regardless of your politics.  Really a terrific film.

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