"Vera Drake" is the latest film from British director Mike Leigh, who has also directed such marvelous and highly acclaimed films as "Secrets and Lies". This time, the director focuses on an actual figure, Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton), who performed abortions in 50's Britain - where such practices were outlawed. However, while that is the subject matter, the focus remains on the individual character.
Staunton's performance is really the highlight of a compelling feature. As the film opens, the good-natured woman is kind, helpful and rather sunny and optimistic. Soon after, we learn that Vera's other job aside from housekeeping is performing abortions - which she takes no money for - on unwanted pregnancies in the area, viewing it as helping out women in need. When complications arise in one of the girls that she assists and that girl ends up in the hospital, the police follow the trail back to Vera and put her under arrest for carrying out an illegal operation. After, she has to face her family, including her shocked husband, Stan (Phil Davis), who had no idea what Vera was doing on the side.
From that point, Staunton makes a remarkable transition from a sunny exterior to a woman utterly devastated - she only saw it as helping women who weren't able to turn anywhere else. Somber, trembling and convincingly shellshocked by her situation, Staunton's powerful performance certainly deserved the awards notice that it did get. The supporting performers also are terrific, and Leigh's naturalistic way of getting performances (improvisation, etc) means that they probably really were surprised when Staunton's character reveals why she's in trouble.
Defnitely Leigh's biggest-budget picture yet, with gorgeous cinematography and excellent period detail. Leigh really doesn't get into the debate about the subject matter - he chooses to focus on Drake's character and the hurt and emotion that comes out of her family when they find out she's been keeping this secret for all this time, and now faces prison time because of it.
The film's subject matter is going to turn off some audiences, the film is bleak (even moreso than the director's other films) and there are a few chilling scenes. However, those who can get past that will find an incredible performance from Staunton and the supporting cast.
VIDEO: "Vera Drake" gets ace treatment from New Line, as the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is remarkably good. Sharpness and detail are exceptional, and the picture displays both terrific defintion and very nice depth. The picture was never inconsistent, and softness was never an issue.
The only issue was some slight edge enhancement that appeared once or twice. No pixelation or print flaws were spotted. The film's color palette is intentionally quite subdued, and it appeared accurately presented on this DVD transfer.
SOUND: "Vera Drake" is presented by New Line in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. While I didn't see the need for a DTS option for a Mike Leigh film (the director's films could essentially be in mono, like Woody Allen does), but the choice was appreciated. Surrounds provided some music once or twice, but they remained silent otherwise. Audio quality was fine, as dialogue and music seemed crisp and clear.
EXTRAS: The film's trailer, and trailers for "Dancer in the Dark", "Birth" and "The Sea Inside".
Final Thoughts: "Vera Drake" is carried by an amazing performance from Staunton, who completely changes gears mid-movie from a pleasant, kindly older woman to a woman whose world suddenly crashes around her. New Line's DVD edition doesn't provide much in the way of supplements (Leigh's films never do), but audio/video quality is fine. A recommended rental.
The Film *** 1/2