2004 / Best Director

Film #520: Vera Drake (2004)

In the first chapter of Every Nominee we looked intently at what sort of British films got nominated for the Best Picture prize. On the whole they tended to be either historical prestige pieces or sumptuous literary adaptations with only a handful of contemporary works making the cut. One such contemporary work was Secrets and Lies, for which Mike Leigh earned nominations both in the screenwriting and directing categories. Eight years later Leigh would once again find himself nominated in both categories for a film that wasn’t up for the Best Picture prize, that film was Vera Drake.

I’ve long been a fan of Mike Leigh’s movies although quite a few of them are meandering in nature they all have characters you want to invest in and sympathise with. Vera Drake is no exception as the titular character is somebody who wants to help everyone and who most people in her life depend on. From the family to the rich women who employ her as a home help, everybody get something from Vera and asks for little in return. That’s true of Vera’s other occupation which her family are unaware of which sees her perform illegal abortions for young women in need. Throughout the film Leigh makes sure that we understand that Vera feels that she’s providing a service for girls who have nowhere else to go and she performs the operation just like she were cleaning a house.

Vera Drake is almost split into two parts with the first establishing Vera’s schedule and the relationship she has with her family members. The second, and more harrowing half, sees Vera arrested for her operation on one girl that goes wrong. This is the more memorable half as Vera struggles to see her family fall apart even though her husband Stanley sticks by her entirely. As this was my first time watching Vera Drake I didn’t know what to expect but I found myself being more invested in the film as it went along. Leigh’s direction allows us to spend time with the characters before the plot kicks into gear and I even found the scenes around the Drake dinner table to be quite compelling. The only part of the plot of Vera Drake that didn’t work for me was the parts focusing on the daughter of one of Vera’s cleaning clients who is able to obtain a legal abortion albeit one that costs her quite a bit of money.

But what makes the film so brilliant is the central performance from the fantastic Imelda Staunton who perfectly encapsulates every facet of Vera’s personality. She goes from being the matriarch to the domestic to the convict expertly and every single scene she appears in is utterly engaging. It’s Staunton’s expression that Leigh focuses on for most of the film and that in my opinion is a wise decision. Leigh’s regular contributor Phil Davis provides fine support as Vera’s down-to-earth husband Stanley whilst I also thought Daniel Mays did a good job as her son Sid. Even the minor roles were well cast thanks to the fact that Leigh has a large ensemble of actors who seemingly want to work for him whenever he’s making a film. That’s certainly evidenced in this film by the fact that Jim Broadbent appears for a couple of minutes as the judge who delivers Vera’s final verdict.

In terms of that year’s Best Director category, Leigh secured a nomination over Finding Neverland’s Marc Forster who I felt did a good job of helming the JM Barrie biopic. In my opinion Finding Neverland and Vera Drake are both fine films and it’s obvious that the former was just a little more joyous than the latter. Since his nomination for Vera Drake, Leigh hasn’t received another nod in the directing category although he has had a few appearances in the screenwriting category. I do think this is a shame and I hope that Leigh does receive a Best Director Oscar at some point as, judging by Vera Drake alone, he more than deserves one.

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