Film No 13 (2015) : Vera Drake

vera drake 1Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is what you would call ‘salt of the Earth’. She will do anything to help anyone; as well as caring for her husband, children and mother, she also pops in to help a poorly neighbour and takes lonely war veteran Reg (Eddie Marsan) under her wing. She has a job too, as a charwoman for a wealthy family. But, unbeknownst to her nearest and dearest, Vera plays another role; she carries out illegal abortions. Not that is how Vera describes what she does, she sees her actions as another way of helping people and doesn’t even take any money for her services. When a young girl almost dies following a visit from Vera, the patient’s mother reveals Vera’s identity to the Police. Following her arrest and subsequent trial, Vera is sentenced to an 18-month prison sentence. The film is set in 1950 and was written and directed by Mike Leigh.

Imelda Staunton is totally convincing in her portrayal of Vera; no surprise that she won the BAFTA for the Best Actress in 2005. The film’s director, Mike Leigh, was awarded the BAFTA’s David Lean Award for Direction and was nominated for the ‘Best Achievement in Directing’ Oscar. In writing this review I discovered that during the making of ‘Vera Drake’, only Staunton was privy to the facts of Vera’s benevolent visits. Thus, when the reason for her arrest was made known to her family, the news was a revelation to the actors as well. The result is genuine and credible on-screen shock.

This film unnerved me, because it raises a complex issue. When I finished watching, I sighed with relief because, after all, the film was set 65 years ago and now abortion is legal in England and has been since 1967. The risks of the backstreet abortion, however pure the motivation of the perpetrators, are surely now behind us. Pregnancy out of wedlock does not carry the same social stigma as it has in the past, and an unplanned pregnancy is just as often referred to as ‘a surprise’ rather than a ‘mistake’. Moral, ethical and religious debates around abortion continue to rage but, for those women for whom going through with the pregnancy is not an option, terminations can be carried out in appropriately safe environments.

Then it hit me. I was being a complete bloody idiot. Of course, abortion is going to be made as clinically safe as possible for women like me; articulate, educated, English-speaking and highly unlikely to be stigmatised or ostracised by a pregnancy in any circumstance, I could walk in to any GP or clinic and access care. But there must surely be 100s, if not 1000’s of women and girls in Britain who simply cannot do that; for social, religious or other reasons. And that is just in my own country. I asked my friend, Google, for some information and she confirmed that according to WHO estimates, 200 women a day die from unsafe abortions. That is a staggeringly awful 73,000 deaths per year.

I am not qualified to discuss abortion rights in any more than the most general of terms, as there are dedicated and knowledgeable organisations such as Abortion Rights UK to do that. All I can say is that ‘Vera Drake’ compelled me to think hard about an issue which I have not considered for many years but which clearly deserves our attention.

Film No 10 (2015) : Pride

prideI remember 1984. I was a student at Uni, we were dancing to Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Wham. It was nothing like George Orwell had predicted. At least, not in Deptford. Big Brother wasn’t watching me and, even if he was, I was probably too drunk to notice. But whilst I was idling away my life, I was more or less oblivious to the political landscape around me, including the miner’s strike. The only time it ever impacted on me was when my dear Grandad was taken ill and in his dying days, ranted about how Scargill would bring the country to its knees. I’m rather ashamed to admit, I don’t think I even knew who Arthur Scargill was.

‘Pride’ depicts events in 1984, when how Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) and his friend Mike Jackson (Joe Gilgun) founded a support group for the striking miners. Unambiguously, the group was called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and it did what it says on their collecting tin. The Group raised money to support the families of striking miners and made contact with a Welsh mining village, which benefitted from the LGSM’s fund-raising. With a wonderful British cast including Imelda Staunton, Dominic West and Bill Nighy, the film depicts the ways in which two apparently disparate groups of people united for a common cause. The LGSM understood persecution, so they understood the plight of the miners.

The film is vibrant and funny, shot through with contemporary music and fashion, blended beautifully with the harsh realities of prejudice and hardship. It brought back a flood of memories about those early Eighties, including the scary media coverage about a new epidemic. AIDS. I was saddened but not surprised to learn at the end of the film that some members of the LGSM were affected by the disease. It somehow made what was achieved in a short life, all the more poignant.

Film No 42 (2014) : That Day We Sang

day we sangI wasn’t sure whether including ‘That Day We Sang‘ as a film was allowed, but as it’s my blog, I figured I can make the rules! To be fair, it was promoted as a ‘TV movie’ and has earned  a place in the International Movie Database (IMDb) so I think I’m safe.

Written by renowned comic Victoria Wood, this musical film is an adaptation of Woods’ stage play. It tells the story of ‘Tubby’ Baker (Michael Ball) and Enid (Imelda Staunton) who are reunited in 1969 by a TV programme which documents the making of a record made in 1929 by a Manchester children’s choir of which they were both a part. Now in their fifties, Enid and Tubby are both single and have the feeling that life has passed them by. Although attracted to one another, they have to overcome a number of challenges before deciding to take a chance on love.

Ball and Staunton have worked on a number of projects, including co-hosting the Olivier Awards at the Royal Opera House and starring together in the West End, in ‘Sweeney Todd – The Musical‘. Although Ball’s musical prowess is well-known, I had no idea that Staunton, immortalised in my mind as the essentially pink Dolores Umbridge, could sing. It’s a sentimental film, but the performances were exquisite. Michael Ball, unrecognisable since his Phantom/Aspects of Love days, is no less charming. His portrayal of the gentle but staid Baker, who has retained a boyish sense of innocence, was perfect. Imelda Staunton’s awakening to the possibilities of love (and fulfilling sex!) in middle age, is empowering and uplifting.

The detail within the film was fantastic – no doubt some nerd will spot anachronisms in the colour of the gutter pipes or the shape of a car headlight, but to the everyday viewer, the setting was amazing. From the handbags to the cereal packets in the cupboards, to the design of the radio and Enid’s typewriter, the pleasing whole was of authentic late 60s life.

You can still see ‘That Day We Sang’ on BBC iPlayer until 22:30 on 25 Jnuary 2015 (running time 90 mins). Give it a look – I think it will make your heart sing.