`Vera Drake' should get people talking, director, star say

An abortion film without religion or politics

Movies: On Screen/DVD/Video

October 28, 2004|By Evan Henerson | Evan Henerson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A generous, big-hearted mother in post-World War II England spends her days cleaning people's homes and her evenings at home with her mechanic husband and two grown children.

During her spare time, the title character of Vera Drake - the new film by Britain's kitchen-sink realist Mike Leigh - helps out women in trouble. She performs abortions, which, in 1950, are criminal offenses. Vera takes no money. She never speaks the word aloud. Her family has no inkling that mum engages in this practice. Toward the end of Vera Drake, they'll find out.

Leigh's film opens at a time when the already divisive abortion question has burned particularly hot during the recently concluded presidential debates. Leigh, who lives in England, has been watching. And occasionally seething. The timing of Vera Drake's release is fortuitous and, to some extent, deliberate.

When it's mentioned that abortion-rights organization Planned Parenthood Federation of America plans to hold screenings of Vera Drake, Leigh replies, "There you go. If it's going to be hijacked by factions, fair enough."

"It's true that we did calculate when we decided to make the film 2 1/2 years ago that if all went according to plan, it could probably be released in this stage right about now," continues the Oscar-nominated writer/director. "But at the same time, of course, it's not an American issue. It's about a fundamental, universal set of dilemmas."

Imelda Staunton, who took home the best-actress award at the Venice International Film Festival for her performance as Vera, agrees with her director. Vera Drake should get people talking, she says.

"In the film, there's no religion, there's no politics. It's just the `thing,'" says Staunton, a character player in films that include Shakespeare in Love, Peter's Friends and Sense and Sensibility. "It's difficult, complex, upsetting and all those things. It should be looked at. I think that film just probably shows what it would be like if it becomes illegal. But legal or illegal, it's always going to be here."

The film has been on the radar screen of administrators at Planned Parenthood since its inception. In the days before the film's opening, Planned Parenthood will host screenings and Q&A sessions with celebrity board members Patricia Clarkson and Gloria Steinem.

Leigh and Staunton have been discussing abortion practically nonstop since Vera Drake, which opens tomorrow, took top honors at Venice early this year. Which is a bit ironic considering that during the months of preparation and rehearsal that a Mike Leigh film requires, the topic was barely broached, much less dissected.

Since she was playing the title character, Staunton knew little more than that she was involved in a film set in the 1950s and concerning abortion. She would learn the rest during a six-month rehearsal process at - among other locations - an abandoned north London hospital. With no script to follow or lines to learn, Staunton and actors Phil Davis, Alex Kelly and Daniel Mays spent months living as a family - improvising, researching and discussing and ultimately creating their characters along the way.

Until she saw the completed film, for example, Staunton didn't know that a character named Susan (played by Sally Hawkins), the upper-middle-class daughter in a home where Vera works, goes through a pregnancy termination at an expensive private clinic. Nor did Staunton - as Vera - know that the story called for the police to arrive at the Drake household. When they do, audiences see Vera's spontaneous reaction.

"No one in my family knew what I was doing. You don't speak to anyone on the outside," says Staunton. "You don't speak to the other actors about it. You only speak with Mike. And I have to tell you that early in the year, I had to do an electronic press kit, and I absolutely could not say the word `abortion.' I had spent a year not telling anyone. Not only did I have the secret as Vera, but I also couldn't speak. It was really hard."

Not so hard, however, that Staunton wouldn't re-up for another Mike Leigh film. Where preparation and research are concerned, she says Leigh's films are unprecedented. "Nothing can touch it. Nothing."

For more than three decades, Leigh has been using the same technique to craft both his plays and films. The Salford, England-born director, 61, made his film debut with Bleak Moments in 1971. For 1996's Secrets and Lies, about a black woman looking to reconnect with her white birth mother, Leigh received a pair of Oscar nominations. Vera Drake is his first film since 2002's All or Nothing.

For film events, see Page 35.

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