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Have some tea, dear: Staunton in Vera Drake.

She Who Served
By Laura Leon

Vera Drake
Directed by Mike Leigh

The war may have been over, but London, circa 1950, was still a pretty grim place, with rationing still very much in existence, a crumbling class system beginning to wreak havoc on society, and, for women, no place to turn to for birth control. The title character in writer- director Mike Leigh’s masterpiece, Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton), is at once a doughy, brisk cleaning lady, a loving housewife and mother, and, when asked, a confidential abortionist. To be sure, Vera, who clucks after her patients and makes them a post-op tea, terms what she does as “helping young girls out what ain’t got nobody to turn to.” The legal ramifications of her practice—which don’t hit home until catastrophe comes knocking on her door—don’t seem to register, or even matter, as Vera is all about helping, aiding, comforting.

This movie would seem like a hot potato, the filmic equivalent of a strident corner speech breaking the peace of an early weekend morning. Somehow, Leigh’s story avoids politics, although it seems clear that his heart is with Vera and her kind (Leigh’s parents, thanked in the credits, were a doctor and a midwife). At one point in the movie, we follow the plight of Susan (Sally Hawkins), a well-to-do girl whose rape results in pregnancy. Through contacts among her upper-crusty friends, she is able to procure a lay-in at a private sanatorium, where she obtains an abortion and is home, Monday morning, in time for a chat with Mum. While we no doubt feel sorry for this young girl, it seems as if she exists solely to educate us on the two-tier system of care for such women; the women that Vera helps, mostly poor, immigrant and overtaxed, don’t have access to such insider information. Granted, this may be an important statement to make, but as presented, it is Leigh’s only misstep in an otherwise compelling and absorbing film. The audience has come to care about Susan, and, perhaps gullibly, had hoped that somehow her path would cross that of Vera.

But Leigh’s main focus is on Vera, and here he is blessed with the presence of Staunton. It is through Staunton’s elastic features that so much of the internal drama unfolds, particularly when Vera is arrested and stands trial. Since we are not given any particulars as to why Vera does what she does (she herself may not have a concrete moment-of-truth rationale), it is important that we focus instead on the who and the what. Vera is probably the most grounded character in cinema of the last 10 years, precisely because she doesn’t analyze things. Her husband Stan (Phil Davis) adores her, as does his brother, and their kids, tailor Sid (Daniel Mays) and shy Ethel (Alex Kelly). Everybody relies on Vera, and almost everybody adores her; so when she’s completely alone and facing a judge, it’s both no surprise and yet an utter shock to see her suddenly aged and broken. Staunton makes us believe that Vera has lived only to serve, and her realization that not everybody shares her idea of help, rocks her very core. The movie’s parting image is devastating, reflecting the fact that her family’s very center has been abruptly removed. It’s a harrowing moment that leaves you rethinking your own assumptions.

I Am a Dead Person

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

Birth, an art film about reincar-nation by director Jonathan Glazer, opens with the death of one Sean and the birth of another Sean. Having established the chronological possibility of a soul being reborn, the film moves forward a decade, finding Anna (Nicole Kidman), the dead Sean’s widow, mooning over his grave. Although she’s about to be married to Joseph (Danny Huston), we’re given the feeling that if she had a chance to reunite with her departed husband, she’d go for it like a shot. And in a way, that’s what happens. Problem is, the new Sean (Cameron Bright) is only 10 years old.

Glazer, who directed the edgy Sexy Beast, goes in the opposite direction here with a slow, meditative narrative that’s really more about the enduring power of grief than it is about reincarnation (and really, what other plausible metaphysical gambit is there to regain a deceased loved one?). Anna’s family, who live in a vast Manhattan high-rise belonging to her mother (Lauren Bacall), is nearly embalmed by civility and good taste. So no wonder they respond with cautious skepticism, rather than outrage, when Sean slips into Anna’s engagement party and announces that she shouldn’t marry Joseph. In private, the boy tells her that he’s Sean, the Sean, and that he still loves her. After being shooed out of the party, he writes Anna a letter, and she agrees to meet with him.

Preternaturally somber (Cameron Bright has this down: He previously played a strange child with a dual identity in the sci-fi stinker Godsend), Sean submits to questioning by Anna’s reasonable brother-in-law (Arliss Howard), and answers personal questions about the dead Sean with spooky accuracy. “It’s like déjà vu,” he explains, an explanation that everyone seems to accept and no one wants to deal with. No one except Anna, who believes in her heart that the boy is indeed the Sean she was married to. The conviction steals over her at a concert, while the camera unflinchingly concentrates on her shell-shocked face and the music swells like crashing waves of heightened consciousness.

After its hypnotic setup, Birth moves onto shakier ground when grappling with the awkwardness of the age gap. Sean intrudes on Anna while she is taking a bath (a scene that isn’t at all the pedophile titillation it’s been made out to be); later, Joseph loses patience with his ludicrously young rival, and instead of punching the boy, he turns him over his knee for a spanking. Yet the film has more plausibility than it first appears, with the dead Sean’s last words (his casual conclusion to a science lecture), and the young Sean’s observation of the engagement-party guests giving credence to an out-of-the-blue plot twist. Birth is also aided immeasurably by Alexandre Desplat’s haunting yet intoxicating score (which is on a par with his memorable work for Girl With a Pearl Earring last year), and the offbeat casting, including a nearly unrecognizable and note-perfect Anne Heche.

With its penetrating close-ups, undercurrents of anguish, and dramatic music, Birth often recalls Stanley Kubrick. But the movie it most resembles in concept is The Blair Witch Project (at least for those who believe in witches), in that if you believe in reincarnation, it might strike you as deeply moving; and if you don’t, then you’re likely to be annoyed by the inexorable buildup in atmosphere, and let down by its mysterious denouement.

—Ann Morrow

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