A review of “Vera Drake” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ****

Rating: R for language and adult situations

Run Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

 

 

Mike Leigh specializes in British working-class dramas (Secrets and Lies, Naked) that resonate with human drama and inevitably leave a lasting impression.  Thanks to a transcendent performance by the immensely talented Imelda Staunton Vera Drake is no exception.

Staunton portrays the title character with an exuberant bonhomie and can-do attitude.  1950s London is a grim setting, but Vera toils as a cleaning woman for the affluent as if she’s chartering her own yacht.  She maintains a happy home, cheerfully administering kind words and hearty meals to mechanic hubby Stan (Phil Davis), good-natured son Sid (Daniel Mays) and mousy spinster daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly). Theirs is the Cleaver family of the U.K.

Foremost on Vera’s mind is hooking her Ethel up with doleful neighborhood bachelor Reg (Eddie Marsan). Vera’s heart of gold also extends to her neighbors, poor disabled folk who get a chipper helping hand a la a quick dusting or a spot of tea.

Vera’s agenda involves more than putting on the kettle. Read it somewhere else but not here; I’m reluctant to divulge Vera’s shameful Achilles heel for fear of ruining the film’s artful ability to spring its ugly little surprise with subtle delineation.  Suffice it to say that Vera’s sunny demeanor masks brisk and efficient denial of a serious criminal offense that ultimately threatens her entire family and shakes their foundation to the core. 

Leigh starkly contrasts his upper and lower classes while focusing on the political grey areas of mid-20th century English morality.  As he explores the subtleties of Vera’s journey from resolute innocence to the harsh realities of the wrong side of the law, Leigh demonstrates genuine fondness for his plucky lead and the ambiguities of her plight.

There’s nothing quite as juicy as the stench of scandal; apple-cheeked Staunton does disgrace genuine justice. Every sentiment in the book is etched on her mobile face as her orderly world crumbles like freshly baked shortbread.

Staunton’s career has been bolstered by impressive supporting performances in Sense and Sensibility and Shakespeare in Love, but Drake’s starring role is tailor-made for her, the jewel in the crown of a finely-tuned melodrama that positively quakes with emotion.