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New Line Home Cinema presents
Inspector Webster: You perform abortions, don't you?
DVD ReviewVera Drake takes care of people. Whether she's delivering meals to an invalid friend, inviting a lonely bachelor to share dinner with her family, tending to her elderly mother, or cheerfully cleaning the houses of rich folk who barely acknowledge her, this dowdy, middle-aged woman with the face of an angel and soul of a saint lavishes warmth and affection on almost everyone she encounters. Even total strangers benefit from her kindness. If a young woman "gets herself into trouble" (1950s euphemism for "knocked up"), Vera comes to the rescue, armed with a rubber syringe and basin filled with soapy water. And within a few days, after some cramping and bleeding, the unmentionable problem flushes itself away.
Abortion was illegal in England in the 1950s, but the image of grandmotherly Vera Drake making house calls and inducing miscarriages—all with the utmost sympathy and tenderness—goes against the more prevailing (and unsettling) vision of back-alley quacks performing dangerous, unsanitary procedures on desperate women, many of whom would rather commit suicide than disclose their shameful secret. Vera offers an easy way out, yet in her haste to help those in need, she loses sight of the risks involved—to her "patients" and herself. In her own mind, she's performing a necessary public service, but in the eyes of the law, Vera is reprehensible.
And depending on your personal politics, you might find Mike Leigh's involving study of British society and mores reprehensible as well. But more than likely, you'll be impressed and moved by the acclaimed British director's meticulous artistry and nuanced storytelling. Vera Drake, like all of Leigh's films, makes the extraordinary look ordinary. With astonishing ease, Leigh (who also directed the superb Secrets & Lies) captures the ebb and flow of real life—the daily rituals, common conversations, and insignificant interactions. Before we know what his films are even about, he surreptitiously draws us in, and once we're involved with his characters—in this case, Vera (Imelda Staunton), her husband Stan (Phil Davis), affable son Sid (Daniel Mays), and painfully shy daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly)—he leads us to the story's main point.
Hot-button topics often make riveting films, and few issues inspire more passionate debate than abortion. But although Vera Drake deals with abortion, it's not about abortion per se. Nor is it an agenda film. At its core, the picture examines moral dilemmas and family dynamics through a host of repressed characters stymied by the constraints of British society in the 1950s. Leigh (who also wrote the screenplay) quietly works abortion into the fabric, and though he doesn't condone or condemn Vera's deeds, he champions his heroine and makes a compelling case on her behalf. He also skillfully juxtaposes the predicaments of Vera's lower class clientele with that of the privileged daughter of Vera's employer. Date-raped by her overbearing boyfriend, Susan (Sally Hawkins) travels a more civilized and perhaps humiliating path in her attempt to terminate her pregnancy, yet her feelings of dishonor mirror those of the impoverished women Vera treats. And in a bitter twist, the same feelings of mortification consume Vera herself when she finally confesses her secret life to her husband.
The suspense of Vera Drake lies not in the plot's outcome—it's a foregone conclusion Vera will be eventually caught and prosecuted—but in how she and her family deal with both the shocking revelations and the irrevocable changes they bring. The ensuing scenes of raw emotion allow Leigh's unobtrusive, almost invisible style to shine, and he plunks us in the thick of the drama. Few filmmakers possess the courage to leave a powerful moment alone, and fewer still trust viewers to interpret it in their own way, but Leigh respects our intelligence and capacity to feel, and, as a result, his movies deeply resonate.
Strangely, Vera Drake stumbles a bit just when it reaches its most dramatic juncture. Vera's interrogation and trial seem belabored and slightly repetitive, but considering Leigh feels most at home chronicling the throwaway details of everyday life, it's not surprising these more formal scenes suffer by comparison.
The performances, however, save them. An actor's director, Leigh encourages improvisation, which lends his films a heightened sense of realism, and throughout his career he's drawn exceptional work from his casts. Vera Drake is no exception. Much has been written about Staunton's bravura portrayal, and it's all true. Utterly devoid of affectation and deserving of all the accolades it received, her performance brims with sincerity, compassion, and wrenching despair. The rest of the ensemble contributes equally sterling work, and sustains the delicate thread of immediacy that runs through the film, but it's Staunton's face we will never forget. She is—and always will be—Vera Drake.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The Vera Drake transfer beautifully combines a lush color palette with a slightly washed out look to create a rich, immersive viewing experience. The nicely saturated hues compliment the period setting, while stark, pale undertones suit the drab, working class milieu of the characters. A bit of grain enhances the film's emotional warmth and slightly softens the cold courtroom and prison scenes. The ruddy English complexions are well rendered, and fine contrast and shadow detail add texture to the image. A few errant speckles intrude, but never detract from enjoyment, and any digital doctoring escapes notice.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Vera Drake is a very quiet film, so it's surprising New Line includes both DD 5.1 and DTS tracks—but who's complaining! Both mixes are understandably front-heavy, but ambient effects are distinct, well-integrated, atmospheric, and not as rare as one might expect. Although the characters' heavy urban accents sometimes make snatches of dialogue unintelligible, conversations are largely clear and comprehendible, and Andrew Dickson's unobtrusive music score enjoys lovely presence and depth. The DTS option slightly punches up the film's subtle details, but otherwise not much separates the two multi-channel tracks.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Birth, Dancer in the Dark, Before Night Falls
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Extras Review: Other than a few trailers, New Line offers no extras on the disc. Considering the film's considerable buzz and three Oscar nominations (actress, director, and original screenplay), the lack of special material is indeed surprising. Leigh, however, seems reluctant to analyze his work, which may explain the lack of a commentary track or any behind-the-scenes featurettes. However, if this DVD sells well, we might see a special edition in the future.
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsAbsorbing, beautifully filmed, and packed with emotion, Vera Drake easily ranks as one of 2004's finest dramatic films. Once again, director Mike Leigh draws superb performances from his actors—most notably the marvelous Imelda Staunton—and tackles a controversial subject with insight and compassion. This fine film definitely deserves more than a barebones release, but even without any noteworthy extras, Vera Drake earns a hearty recommendation.
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