Tag: Lesley Sharp

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.

The Full Monty (1997)

Steelworkers from Sheffield have no options but to turn their hand to stripping, in British phenomenon The Full Monty

Director: Peter Cattaneo

Cast: Robert Carlyle (Gaz), Mark Addy (Dave), Tom Wilkinson (Gerald), Lesley Sharp (Jean), Emily Woof (Mandy), William Snape (Nathan), Steve Huisan (Lomper), Paul Barber (Horse), Hugo Speer (Guy)

In the summer of 1997, Britain was a depressed place. The country was in the middle of an intense mourning for the death of Princess Diana. Perhaps that’s why a film all about overcoming despair and to turn it into heart-warming triumph suddenly gripped the whole nation and emerged from nowhere to become the most successful British film of all time. No one expected a film about Sheffield strippers to do that.

The economy has dropped out of the Sheffield steel market, and hundreds of people are out of work and desperate. Gaz (Robert Carlyle), a genial waster, needs £700 to pay his child maintenance and not lose access to his son Nathan (William Snape). Dave (Mark Addy) has serious self-image problems, his disgust at his own weight is leading him to push away Jean (Lesley Sharp), the wife he can’t believe loves him. Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), their ex-foreman, is so ashamed of losing his job he hasn’t told his wife that he’s been unemployed for six months and is facing financial ruin. Together with three other men with no other options, they decide one way to get money quick is to follow the example of the sell-out male-strippers at the local working club – with the unique selling point that they will go “the full monty”.

It’s been nearly a decade since I saw The Full Monty. Over-exposure made it an easy film to feel a bit sniffy and dismissive about, like it was a happy accident that the film came from nowhere to achieve staggering success. But that’s hugely unfair. Watching it back now, it’s amazing how much it’s a comedic film grounded in a sense of desperation and pain, and then how brilliantly it uses this to create empathy for its characters, and how wonderfully this helps you to share their joy and triumph when they are finally taking control of their own destinies.

The Full Monty emerged from a troubled production history. It was hugely difficult to find funding for the film. It took years to get the filming sorted, and casting was difficult – in a parallel universe Nicholas Lyndhurst and Russ Abbott played the lead roles. Robert Carlyle has described the making of the film as being totally chaotic (he further claimed he was convinced the film was “pish” and heading for disaster). The first cut was met with such negativity from the distributors that it nearly ended up direct-to-video, until the producers begged for one more shot at editing the film. But then it emerged as one of the most widely loved UK films of the 1990s, eventually being nominated for four Oscars (Picture, Director, Screenplay and a win for Best Score). That’s what I call a turnaround!

It’s also strangely fitting for the film itself. The opening footage showing a prosperous and bustling Sheffield in the 1960s is a perfect set-up for the Sheffield of the 1990s with unemployment rampant, and our characters confined to endless days of drifting around the city and failing to gain any benefits from a workshop at the unemployment office. Every frame of Cattaneo’s well shot film stresses the relative bleakness of the environment, the run-down world the characters inhabit, and that sense that all promise is missing from the future of this city.

In the middle of this, the film doesn’t shy away from looking at – with plenty of jokes – plenty of themes which are hardly your default expectations for a comedy movie. We’ve got depression, self-loathing, body-image, fathers’ rights and suicide: if that’s not a comic gold on paper I don’t know what is!  However, what is so perfect about the film is how well it judges the tone when dealing with these themes. Simon Beaufoy’s script is warm, humane and above all immensely empathetic. Never – not once – are any of these characters the butt of the humour. While we may see the dark comedy that can occur, we never laugh at the characters.

The script gets a perfect balance between all this desperation and pain and well-worked, down-to-earth, honest and affecting humour. It’s also genuinely funny, with several stand-out gags. As an interesting side note, perhaps the film’s most famous comic moment – the boys standing in the dole queue, involuntarily practicing their routine when Hot Stuff starts playing in the radio – nearly didn’t make the film, as the producers felt it was unrealistic. Just as well they left it in, as it perfectly captures the mood of the movie.

On top of which, the film taps into the human bonds that can grow in adversity. One of the film’s principal delights is seeing this odd bunch slowly begin to come together like a family. We see them confide in each other, listen to each other’s problems, accept each other for what they are. It’s a film about the triumph of the human spirit and the rewards that can come from opening your heart to other people when all seems lost.

It further helps that Simon Beaufoy’s script draws such terrific performances from the actors. Carlyle (for all his doubts about the film) plays Gaz with a perfect, low-key, commitment and empathy. Carlyle in many ways makes the film work as well as it does because he plays the truth of each scene and is willing to be the film’s loadstone. He plays every moment truthfully and is as effective showing Gaz’s chancer wasterness as he is at allowing the real pain and fear Gaz feels at the prospect of losing his son.

The film also changed the careers of Addy and Wilkinson, turning the two into character actor superstars. Addy is fabulous as the self-loathing Dave: having had problems myself with being concerned about my own image, seeing the psychological damage Dave inflicts on himself through his own inadequacies is very moving, and perfectly played by Addy – who also brings a great deal of comic mastery to the film. Wilkinson is perhaps the pick of the bunch as the seemingly proud and haughty Gerald, who hides intense fragility and pain under the surface. He has a truly affecting breakdown scene after a job interview gone wrong – and the reaction acting to this from Carlyle and Addy is also by the way marvellous. It’s a terrific (BAFTA winning) performance.

And then you hit the final stripping scene – and all that empathy the film has been building pays off, because the triumphal dance and strip down is hugely heart-warming. After seeing the men go through such difficulty and despair it’s really affecting and joyful to see them finally take control of their own destinies. How could you not be wrapped up in it? How could a whole nation not take the whole thing to their hearts? Put out of your mind all those thoughts that this can’t be that good, or that we were all mistaken in 1997: this is genuinely very good, thought-provoking and hilarious stuff.