Tea and Sympathy

Imelda Staunton, left, in Vera Drake.Photo: Courtesy of Fine Line Features

Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, starring the extraordinary Imelda Staunton, is about a rarity—a genuinely happy person. Vera’s husband, Stan (Phil Davis), knows he’s a lucky man. She is the guiding light of their family. When not working as a domestic, she tends to her aged mother and a few friendless neighbors and shut-ins. She believes in the curative powers of a hot cup of tea. By all rights, Vera should be a candidate for beatification, but she’s too lively, too big a laugher for that. Especially since this is a Mike Leigh movie, we keep expecting some catastrophe to befall her—all this virtue surely will not go unpunished. It’s almost a relief when the boom drops. Few things are more reassuring than a confirmation of one’s worst fears.

For only the second time in his long career—the first was his great Gilbert and Sullivan movie, Topsy-Turvy—Leigh has made a period film. His work is so closely associated with the quotidian drama of modern-day England that at first, the shift back in time is a jolt. But the rigors of historical re-creation work to his advantage. Leigh’s many contemporary movies have sometimes been rather desultory, with numerous scenes resembling digressions from a narrative he wasn’t all that sweet on anyway. Vera Drake is set in London in 1950, and the postwar kitchen-sink realism helps to focus the story. The film moves assuredly from incident to incident in a way that makes it seem old-fashioned, but pleasingly so. In a sense, Vera Drake is a movie that might have been made in the early fifties, just before the Angry Young Men hit the scene. Vera is the antithesis of the Angries, and yet her situation looks ahead to the furious class-consciousness that would soon overtake English drama. As it turns out, this chuckling mother hen has a sideline performing abortions for working-class girls. She operates worlds apart from the precincts of the well-to-do, where abortions are discreetly performed in swank clinics and the illegalities are all smoothed out (this is the treatment received by the daughter of a wealthy family Vera works for).

Vera’s girls, often administered to in sordid isolation, don’t have it quite so easy. Arriving with her abortion kit, she prattles reassuringly to her terrified clientele: “Just put this little tube in … you’ll be right as rain.” Vera isn’t being disingenuous when she offers her reassurances; she truly believes that nothing bad will ensue. But then a girl nearly dies from complications, and the police arrest Vera at home in the presence of her uncomprehending family. (She has kept them in the dark.)

“By all rights, Vera should be a candidate for beatification, but she’s too lively, too big a laugher for that.”

From this point on, the film descends into unrelieved pathos. Leigh has built up such sympathy for Vera that her collapse is almost too painful for us to bear. The police who interrogate her are uncommonly kind—it would be difficult to find an out-and-out villain in any of Leigh’s movies—but they have a job to do. The mystery for them, and for her family, is why Vera did what she did—for more than twenty years, and for no money. She explains that the girls had no one else to turn to, but the chief investigator (Peter Wight) is probably closer to the truth when he asks her, “Did it happen to you when you were a girl?” It is typical of Leigh that he doesn’t spell things out for us in block letters. His method of moviemaking—the way his scripts are painstakingly built up during long periods of improvisation with his cast—yields an emotional layering that, at best, makes his characters seem startlingly real. His people confound our expectations, and this sense of surprise brings us closer to them than do the programmed protagonists of so many other movies.

One of the letdowns of Vera Drake is that once Vera is arrested, we lose her voice. She turns into a barely audible blubberer, an object of pity and woe, and her family takes center stage. It soon becomes clear why Leigh spent so much time detailing the mundane niceties of the Drakes—he was setting us up for the moment when all that hominess would be shattered. Vera’s son, Sid (Daniel Mays), an apprentice tailor and aspiring dandy, is the most shaken by the news, and the only one who castigates her openly. Stan’s anger is far more contained. He tells Sid that whatever Vera did was “out of the kindness of her heart,” and we are left with the impression that he, like Vera, is a species of saint.

Leigh’s view is consolingly humane but also a little flat. The image of Vera’s dazed, supportive family huddled in the gallery during her trial is very moving, but it represents an emblem of, almost an advertisement for, togetherness. Vera Drake is a tragedy, but Leigh, with his faith in the goodness of people, may have closed himself off from its blackest implications. But certainly there are plenty worse faults in an artist than professing such a faith. And it will be a long time before anyone who sees this movie shakes off the moment when Vera, confronted by the police in front of her family, deliquesces before our eyes into a mass of sorrow.

Nobody has a smile quite like Annette Bening’s—bright and bow-lipped yet almost mocking in its suggestion of cruelties beneath the good cheer. There are striations of ice in that smile. Playing a West End stage queen in the otherwise musty Being Julia, Bening has a high time strutting her good/bad stuff. As a diva who practically has of A CERTAIN AGE stamped on her forehead, Julia is restless for sexual renewal and finds it in a twenty-ish American (Shaun Evans) who makes her feel young—and, inevitably, old. At times, the film—which was directed by István Szabó and adapted by Ronald Harwood from a Somerset Maugham novel—suggests a cross between Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve. The suggestion, alas, doesn’t go very far, but Bening’s performance approaches the pantheon. When she says about her suitor “Deep down I can’t help feeling contempt for that boy,” she gives the line a dizzying mix of rage and rue, and in that instant Julia is a harridan clinging to an ingenue’s innocence

Dylan Kidd’s maudlin P.S. is this week’s other older-woman/younger-man extravaganza. As the “younger,” weighing in at 24 years old: Topher Grace’s intense but frolicky art student. And the “older”? It’s a depressing sign of these Botoxed times that we’re not meant to question the fact that the ravishing Laura Linney, playing a 39-year-old admissions officer in Columbia’s fine-arts department, is over the hill. At this rate, it won’t be long before Kirsten Dunst and Reese Witherspoon are cast as crones.

Tea and Sympathy