Tag: Adrian Scarborough

Vera Drake (2004)

Phil Davis and Imelda Staunton are superb in Mike Leigh’s masterpiece Vera Drake

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), Phil Davis (Stan Drake), Peter Wight (Inspector Webster), Daniel Mays (Sid Drake), Alex Kelly (Ethel Drake), Eddie Marsan (Reg), Adrian Scarborough (Frank Drake), Heather Craney (Joyce Drake), Sally Hawkins (Susan Wells), Ruth Sheen (Lily), Lesley Sharp (Jessie Barnes), Liz White (Pamela Barnes), Martin Savage (Sergeant Vickers), Helen Coker (WPC Best), Vincent Franklin (Mr Lloyd), Lesley Manville (Mrs Wells), Jim Broadbent (Judge)

If you passed her on the street, you’d be sure to say hello and she’d be sure to ask after your family – and really mean it. She has a kind word for everyone and never thinks about herself. And, as far as the law is concerned, she’s a multiple murderer. Vera Drake mixes warmth and goodness with anger at social injustice and is stuffed with perfectly observed detail and marvellous acting. It might just be Mike Leigh’s masterpiece. Certainly, few other of his films carry such an emotional wallop.

In London in 1950, Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) spends her life helping those around her and is a devoted wife and mother. But what her husband Stan (Phil Davis) and children Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly) don’t know is that for decades she has been “helping young girls out” who find themselves unwillingly in the family way. All Vera wants to do is help – but with abortion illegal, her actions are a ticking timebomb, which explodes when Vera is arrested.

Vera Drake is a film about “the family way” – in every sense. Leigh’s unique film-making technique is familiar now: long weeks of research and intensive, improvisational rehearsals help the actors to create fully-fleshed characters who they know so well, they can predict their reactions in any circumstances. During rehearsals, none of the actors in the family knew Staunton was playing an abortionist until the actors playing the police knocked on the door mid-rehearsal – and even Staunton was completely unaware she was to be arrested. The genuine shock the actors felt feeds this intensely powerful scene – and every moment that follows.

In perhaps no other film has Leigh’s technique been more successful: every single character feels completely and utterly real. You could look in any direction and find a character with such a rich hinterland you want to know their stories. Just as intriguing films could be formed around the lives of the young women Vera helps out – Sinead Matthews ‘very young woman’ (and the boyfriend who waits outside), Tilly Vosburgh as a mother of seven with a sick husband, Rosie Cavaliero as a nervous married woman or Vinette Robinson’s scared Jamaican girl – as has been about Vera.

These women have fallen through the cracks – unable to support a family, but deprived any chance of making choices about themselves and bodies. There is a clear social gap – Sally Hawkins gives a sensitive, gentle performance as an upper-class woman, raped by her boyfriend, who obtains an abortion through psychiatric loopholes available only to the rich. No fault of hers – you can imagine she’d be horrified at how others suffer – but for the poor, their only option is Vera. It’s a huge flaw in the system – and removing Vera won’t solve the ‘problem’. It only means women will turn with more desperation to the sort of uncaring sleazy abortionists Denholm Elliott played in Alfie.

The film works because of its tenderness and the raw emotion of the performances. Leigh’s camera is a largely stationary and observatory, but that immerses us in the domestic charm of the first half as much as it does the horrifying coldness of the legal system in the second half. The Drake family home is small and cramped, reflecting their poverty, but also because it feels stuffed with love. Their children – the extremely shy Ethel and her outgoing son Sid – both reflect their intensely loving home, and her husband Stan is full of kindness, generosity and decency.

Leigh carefully demonstrates the warmth of this family. There’s a tear-inducingly sweet romance between Eddie Marsan’s Reg (a beacon of human decency) and the shy Ethel. Stan’s brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough, marvellous) and middle-class wife Joyce (Heather Craney, wonderfully torn in her feelings) struggle to conceive a child. The family laugh and joke together, every day ending in smiles and expressions of love. It’s beautifully immersing and deeply moving – and makes the wait for this world to shatter even more dreadful.

As Vera, Imelda Staunton gives an astonishing performance. A quiet, polite, open-hearted lady whose greatest pleasure is other people’s happiness. Leigh’s film follows her acts of caring around the community – cleaning neighbours houses, looking after her ill mother, inviting lonely newcomer Reg to dinner – showing she applies the same heart-felt but unshowy care to those, as she does to her abortions. It’s twenty minutes before we see one of these, and what’s striking is the well-practised calmness Vera goes about this work, carefully repeating the same reassuring instructions. She never asks for anything (the posh doctor treating Sally Hawkins’ character takes £100). Lily, who puts her in touch with those in need, has no qualms charging £2 without Vera’s knowledge.

Then the arrest comes. This sequence – and the rest that follows – is frankly extraordinary. Staunton’s face when she sees police is a heart-breaking thing of wonder – a horrified realisation that what she has dreaded for decades has finally happened and the realisation that the world as she knew it is over. Throughout she is astoundingly fragile. Barely able to speak, mute with shock – and horrified to hear one of her girls nearly died (it’s never revealed what went wrong). Her first thought is the girls health and how this will ruin her family’s celebration of Ethel’s engagement. So warm and joyful has the first half of the film been, we feel the shocking coldness as the law goes about – albeit with a regret, beautifully underplayed by Peter Wight’s sympathetic detective and Helen Coker’s gentle WPC – the black-and-white business of cataloguing wrongs.

Staunton is extraordinary: she shrinks and diminish, terrified and mortified. The reactions of her family – confused then stunned and in some cases appalled – feel immensely true: some jump forward in support, others in anger. Phil Davis’ deeply moving performance sees Stan suppress his anger under love. Mays’ Sid rages, Heather Craney’s Joyce is resentful, Scarborough’s Frank is a pillar of support, Alex Kelly’s Ethel quietly holds her mother and will not her go. The emotion of this is so affecting as it feels so real: when Reg quietly shows his support and later gently says the disastrous post-arrest Christmas is the finest he has ever had, you’ll feel tears spring to your eyes.

The relentless march of the law is chronicled perfectly by Leigh. This is a director at the top of his game, creating a low-key film that switches on a sixpence from warmth and familial love to shattering emotional impact. Staunton’s performance is breathtakingly brilliant, avoiding all histrionics and will break your heart. The entire cast is astounding. The research and filming is exquisite. The film will quietly devastate you, but also remind you that nothing is more reassuring than the fundamental goodness of people. A beautiful, moving, masterpiece of a film.

On Chesil Beach (2017)

Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan share a disastrous wedding night in On Chesil Beach

Director: Dominic Cooke

Cast: Saoirse Ronan (Florence Ponting), Billy Howle (Edward Mayhew), Emily Watson (Violet Ponting), Anne-Marie Duff (Marjorie Mayhew), Samuel West (Geoffrey Ponting), Adrian Scarborough (Lionel Mayhew), Anton Lesser (Reverend Woollett), Tamara Lawrence (Molly)

There are few things sadder than the road not taken. And few novels capture the tragedy of a single moment in time shaping a whole life’s course better than Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. This slim novella starts as a romance but quickly collapses into a tragedy – and this film adaptation, adapted beautifully by McEwan, hums with a constant sense of sadness and gloom.

Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) is a middle-class boy and would-be historian who falls in love with promising violin player Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) in 1962, after they both graduate from their respective universities with first class degrees. But their wedding night is a disaster – Edward is in tune with the swinging sixties and flushed with sexual desire, Florence is still living with the values of the 1950s and extremely uncomfortable with sex (possibly connected to a past relationship with her domineering father, expertly played by Samuel West). A conversation on Chesil beach leads to a ruinous split – and for Edward a life of regret.

On Chesil Beach is a film that expertly demonstrates contrasts – between the oppressive 1950s and the more bohemian 1960s (sexual freedom, socialism, nuclear disarmament), and the skilful use of the rock ‘n’ roll favoured by Edward and the classical music that is central to Florence’s life. Dominic Cooke’s low-key, carefully structured film wonderfully balances these themes, showing throughout how cultural, social and relationship clashes can cause pain and strife. 

Sex is of course the problem. At first nervous romance seems to be the theme – but it’s actually physical misunderstanding and incompatibility. Cooke’s film cuts back and forth from the wedding evening to fill in the gaps of their timeline that have brought Edward and Florence to this point, and explain their psychology going into this wedding night that will shape their lives. Edward has no understanding of Florence’s nerves and fear about sex, while Florence fails to effectively articulate these feelings in a way that Edward can understand or sympathise with.

Essentially, it’s a tragedy about a failure of communication and how hasty, ill thought out words and decisions can shatter an otherwise extremely happy relationship. Because there is no doubt – and McEwan makes it even clearer here than in the novella – of how this couple are perfectly suited together. Cooke’s film captures the halcyon dreaminess of their courtship in the giddy summer of 1962, in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside. The film hums with their immediate attraction and strong feelings for each other – while also laying the groundwork of their failure to really and fully communicate with each other. The sexual encounter between them is agonising in its clumsiness, nerves, awkwardness, functionality and eventual total failure.

It works so well in these segments as both leads bring expressive, empathy filled performances to the screen. Howle is very good as a man struggling with his place in the world, who juggles bohemian ideals and longings with a keen desire to be seen as “a man”, to be well regarded by others. Ronan is also excellent as a young woman who in many ways is both ahead of her time and left behind it, ambitious and forward thinking but oppressed and terrified by physical contact. The tragedy is that she relaxes so much with Edward, but can’t bring herself to voice her concerns, fears and tortured history to him.

It’s that tortured history where the film leans a little too hard. The book holds dark suggestions that Florence may have been abused by her father, but in the film McEwan moves them from subtext into full-on text. Samuel West is very good as this intimidating figure, but the explanation that much of Florence’s sexual discomfort is directly related to ill-defined sexual misdemeanours from her father feels slightly pat. Far more interesting is the idea that she is simply scared of contact, and struggling to adapt the prim 1950s ideas she has been brought up with to the modern era.

But the film wants to give a deeper meaning to a drama that is more interesting when it looks at troubled psychologies at a time when the world was shifting from one generation to another. It remains a very slight story – and even at 100 minutes it feels like it is stretching the content of the novel – but also one that does carry a lot of emotional weight. The film’s coda, set in 2007, leans a little too heavily on the actors now layered under old-age pancake make-up (it’s noticeably not included in the novella, which gives no information about Florence’s future life at all) but it carries a real sense of sadness and loss for both characters, one of whom has seen their life drift into nothingness, another who has achieved but still carries a sense of sadness for a lost love. McEwan’s careful, elegant script captures a lot of this small-scale tragedy and if the film is slight and at times a little too obvious, it’s also able to induce a tear or two.