Vera Drake (2004)
If it weren’t for her role in the newest installment of the Harry Potter franchise as high inquisitor Dolores Umbridge, most people would be asking “who the hell is she?” Watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and then Vera Drake back-to-back made me reconsider Imelda Staunton in a whole new light. It’s amusing how she plays polar-opposites; the latter being a cruel, and pompous authority figure in the same vein as Margaret Thatcher dressed in fluffy pink outfits. The former role being that of warmth and kindheartedness whose sense in fashion reminds me of clothes my grandmother would wear. Imelda Staunton is one of Britain’s finest actresses working today with an extensive career in television and has appeared in several low-budget British films. Her versatility remains her greatest strength, a gifted character actor able to tackle any role with ease. Staunton is a scene stealer in every sense of the word, capable of causing those around her to seem vastly inferior.
Her role as the title character in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake garnered her first Oscar nomination and rightfully so. If it were up to me, she would beaten Hilary Swank that year and taken that Best Actress Oscar home to place on her mantle piece. I don’t mean to discredit Swank’s work in Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby because she held her own and redeemed her otherwise lackluster career. Staunton on the other hand is simply incredible; pushing the boundaries of dramatic acting to a whole new level without going over-the-top. Anyone can cry on screen but to make it feel genuinely honest is another story altogether.
Taking place in early 1950’s Britain, Vera Drake is a benign philanthropist with a heart of gold. She’s a loving mother and wife, takes care of the disabled and her elderly mother without nary a peep. She also makes an honest living working hard at her day job as a maid cleaning rich people’s houses. Vera is the type of mother we all wish to have; a gentle spirit providing food on our plates and endless nurturing love. Of course, there has to be a catch – no one is that perfect. She has a separate life that her family knows nothing about. In her spare time Vera performs illegal abortions, except not for profit. Surely someone of such compassion for the welfare of others wouldn’t dare commit these crimes? And therein lays Leigh’s dilemma that he poses towards the viewer. Are we to feel sympathy for a woman who breaks the law because she feels that what she is doing is benefiting these young girls and also happens to be a sweet old lady who wouldn’t hurt a fly? Or does she deserve to be punished regardless of her intentions? There is a tragic scene where Vera confesses to her husband about carrying out these abortions and her emotional break-down is devastating. The fate of Vera Drake I dare not reveal here although it does make for interesting discussion on the morality of her actions.