03 September 2009

Vera Drake

I remember when this movie made a big splash (way back in 2004!); it was nominated for a number of Oscars, but it did not win any (however, it won a bunch of awards in Britain and elsewhere). Imelda Staunton plays the title character, a working-class woman who cleans houses for a living, takes care of her aging mother, her husband, her two grown children, and almost everyone else she knows, with a smile on her face and a song on her lips.

Vera is one of those stalwart Englishwomen who think a cup of tea can fix anything--she's sympathetic to other people's problems and helps where she can, but she's so at peace with herself that other people's troubles don't take her down--they're an occasion to help, and also to recall her own good fortune.

Unknown to her family and all her acquaintance except one, her activities include inducing miscarriages in pregnant women who wish they weren't. She takes no money for the service. She sees it as "helping girls out."

Eventually she is caught, and the movie traces the impact of this conflict between personal conviction and the law on Vera and her family. By including a vignette about the daughter of one of Vera's employers, the movie also lets us see that things were very different for the upper class, so we feel that there are multiple levels of fairness (or unfairness).

In the end it's a grueling movie to watch. No one likes to see a good woman--a really good woman--ground down. But you feel it's true. The system has no mercy.

After checking what Vera Drake was competing against at the 2005 Academy Awards, it seems to me that Imelda Staunton was robbed (Hilary Swank won for Million Dollar Baby--she's good, but not that good) and Mike Leigh was robbed (Clint Eastwood can be a fine director--I really admire Mystic River and Unforgiven--but Million Dollar Baby is a tearjerker-and=nothing-but-a-tearjerker--set against Vera Drake, there is really no contest).

So this is the kind of movie Vera Drake is: you not only enjoy the movie--laugh, cry, empathize and all that--but it makes you want to fight for it.

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