Friday, January 06, 2006

Vera Drake Shit Storm

I was going to write a little review of Mike Leigh’s ’04 film Vera Drake. As a character study of a working class mom, care-taker and house-cleaner in 1950 England, who secretly performed abortions for desperate women, the film got to me on some emotional level that fell somewhere between dread and pitiful sadness. That’s because Leigh loves loves loves to work with character actors and all that love gets up there on the screen and has a taut emotional current running through every performance. Everybody gets a piece of the cinematic pie in a Mike Leigh film and you either fall for that or you don’t.

I guess I’m a Mike Leigh fan, even though he can be annoyingly vague. Mike: please no more hints at back-stories that never play out. Not fair to have your actresses cry their eyes out over “something in the past” that we never get to see. Even in real life we usually get to find out why someone is breaking down in front of us. Generally people politely clue us in to the source of the emotional fallout, even if it’s a bare outline of the past event. Leigh lets a lot of plotlines hang there and you get to figure it out for yourself. That’s very Europeanish of him and I like that in a film, but he might be leaning a little too heavily on that particular little tactic.

Also, he makes multi-narrative, often slow-paced films. I like that too. But many people HATE that in a film and they get really irate that they have to sit there and watch people experiencing a life that is very similar to us sitting around experiencing our lives. They really get pissed off because their cinematic experience isn’t helping them escape from real life and with Mike Leigh, the life they’re watching might be a wee bit gritty and unpleasant to look at. He likes texture and grubbiness and dark, cramped apartments with bad décor. His actors have really bad hair and wrinkles and bags under their eyes. They’re pasty and their clothes are ill-fitting. Unless they’re upper-class. In Vera Drake The upper class wears smart outfits and they’re pretty hateful or repressed or both.

When I looked at Vera Drake on Netflix to get some more background on the film, I found myself transfixed by the 161 customer reviews. Usually I read a few Netflix reviews of films I’m interested in, just to see what the general public’s take on it was. They’re often informative, or enjoyable, or even interesting with a few disgruntled ones thrown in for balance and sometimes humor. But Vera Drake reviews were interesting on another level. Because the film is about a secretive abortionist who gets caught and goes to trial, people were reviewing more than the film. They were reviewing their feelings about abortion and how it affected their viewing of the film. Now that’s interesting. I hope Netflix and the reviewers don’t mind if I list some of their thoughts here. Most of them are anonymous so it’s not like I’m spotlighting anyone who might live down the street from you. Some reviews contain spoilers so don’t read further if you plan on watching the film first. Netflix has a 5-star rating system. Vera Drake didn’t get a lot of 5-star reviews but most agreed that lead actress Imelda Staunton’s Oscar nomination was deserved.

2 stars - This movie was interesting in that it was pro-legalization but not pro-abortion in the way I expected. It does point out, rather subtly, that the girls who got abortions were not given any kind of physical followup, let alone counseling before or after, and that many of them died. Their deaths did not happen just because abortion was illegal, but because the woman (Vera) performing the abortion was ignorant as to the ill effects of the "help" she was giving. As we hear from the doctors later in the film, many of the people she "helps" in this way probably end up dead shortly after. Pamela is one of the lucky ones. We don't ever see the other girls again. The ones who survive, like the dark-haired daughter of Vera's employer, end up emotionally numbed. I do think the filmmaker wanted us to feel sorry for Vera, who had had an abortion herself and may have been trying (in a sick deflective way) to make it all "come away." Her putting on the tea and her chirpy attitude was a way of saying, "Oh, that nasty abortion you had when you were young, it really wasn't so bad now, was it? Just all part of a normal cheerful day." The reason she cries at the end is that she has to face the collapse of this lie she's told herself. Too bad so many girls had to die before she faced this reality. I never felt sorry for Vera, only sad for the trauma and deaths she caused (to both the mothers and their unborn children). - molotov

Wow! molotov saw a completely different film than I did. I didn’t conclude ANY of the stuff that molotov saw so clearly while watching Vera’s story unfold. I thought she was crying because she was putting her family through the ringer because her two worlds had collided and created a big legal mess. And the dark-haired daughter was emotionally numb even before her abortion, especially after she got date-raped. See? Mike Leigh leaves it up to YOU to figure it out. - editor

1 star - Are we supposed to feel sorry for Vera here? Is that the entire story? Dear Filmmaker -- don't forget that while you're making your political statement you still have to entertain us -- not even close. - Seattle Tattle

4 stars - This story is filled with complexity, yet very simply and beautifully portrayed. There are twists and ironies within this movie that will keep your mind on it for days after viewing. - JK from Missoula

Whoa my head is spinning from these polarized views. - ed

3 stars - Yes, the acting was great but what a hideously depressing film! It made us want to lock outselves in the closet for three months: ears, eyes, mouth and nose filled with mud, in order to suffer a mere nano percent of what Vera did. The impoverished, underprivileged period of subject matter was presented without any redeeming, amazing grace. The sets, clothes, lighting, attitudinal character direction were all of a plangent chord, which seemed to stretch into the Forever. Having to view Vera's non-stop tears for the last half hour was more a question of our intelligence quotient than one of a critic's forbearance. So off went the film. We imagined the ending with Vera crying all the way to the dross house or prison, and crying the entire length of her sentence. - Zooey not Franny

1 star - She makes tea about 87 times, could not have been more boring. Only if I had watch the whole movie. - SL from Bridgeport

Don’t feel you have to actually finish watching the film to review it. That cuts down on spoilers. - ed

1 star - I was considering renting, since it was "recommended". But after reading the reviews & summary, why would I? If its "so real" in its portrayal of abortions, why should anyone want to watch it? And forget how wonderful the acting is...and remember what the subject is people - killing babies. Oh, poor nurse who gets caught murdering babies. I don't think so. If you disagree, try talking to someone who's had to suffer an abortion or any miscarriage of their baby. Why put those feelings on-screen with the pity on the killer? - pro-lifer, USA

Don’t let a thing like not renting the movie stand in the way of your review. - ed

1 star - lauding a woman who committed MURDER? how sad, tragic, horrific. and what a sad commentary on our state of mind as a society to see this as acceptable. those people she was "helping"--those women were carrying human beings. HUMANS. it's so sad how expendable our society views human life. if we don't want it, then we don't keep it--never mind that actions have consequences. there are millions of people who would LOVE nothing more than to adopt--AND there are so many viable options to abortion. - missdaphne19

I know! That’s why there’s hardly any foster kids anymore. - ed (with really sarcastic voice)

1 star - I'm sorry but I think they should have fried her for it. My religion just has trouble with movies of this nature. And people like that I wouldn't recomend this to anyone to watch. - B

According to Netflix, 385 out of 662 people found this review helpful. - ed

3 stars - Like all of Mike Leigh's films, this is a strong character study, one in which afterwards you will remember the incredible acting by Imelda Staunton and not so much the plot points. … I also liked that Leigh didn't make Vera out to be a cardboard saint. While she is definately sympathetic and has that dough-mom quality, there were also times I found Vera very insensitive. Her "cherry-o/buiscuits and tea" routine at times made her unaware of the fear some of these girls had. Here are these petrified girls, and Vera dismisses their concerns with a smile, a quick pat on the hand and off she goes. I liked that Mike Leigh points this out. A very good, solid film!! - Astroboy from TX 8

It’s true, Vera is a very odd duck. Leigh likes odd ducks. I personally think the film is really about an unfathomable person. - ed

3 stars - Here's the thing: If a movie takes me to such a sad, depressing place, i want to know something more coming out than i knew going in. I am old enough to know this material. The sad part, for me, is that the small minded, who should see this film, will most probably not. This movie has great performances by wonderful actors playing inarticulate, uneducated, post WWII, working class people. This is not the swinging, trendy London of the 1960s, okay? I lived through this crap and here it is if you care to know why women absolutly can't go back. Power is NEVER given, gurls. We have to pick power up and keep it. By the way.. Vera Drake was probably having a safty rate comparable to most abortion clinics. Birth control is the big miricle news. Why are we STILL debating abortion when we should be getting accurate birth control info and products to every woman of child bearing age?! - RF from Bellingham, WA

If only Leigh would make a film about swinging, trendy London of the 60s. Then we’ll really see something depressing. - ed

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