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The title character of writer-director Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake is a tirelessly do-gooding sort. Vera, a tiny, button-faced Englishwoman, dresses in pilly sweaters and drab skirts; middle-aged, she looks as if she’s been toiling since birth. In dreary 1950 London, she spends her days tidying the homes of the rich and dropping in to check on the neighborhood infirm—always cheerily—before returning to her tiny flat to make dinner for her husband and two grown children. Once in a while, her daily rounds include panicky women who’ve gotten in the family way; in these cases, Vera’s reflexive move to “put the kettle on” while she unpacks a rubber syringe ain’t in preparation to make tea.
In other words, Vera is a saint—who casually performs abortions.
“Abortion,” however, is a word that’s not only barely spoken in Leigh’s powerful drama, it’s not even uttered until the final 45 minutes. Vera (Imelda Staunton) prefers to say that she “helps young girls out.” Besides a mild suggestion that she had gotten pregnant herself when she was very young, no explanation is given regarding why Vera has been offering this service—for free—for approximately 20 years. And she hasn’t felt the need to tell either her mechanic husband, Stan (Phil Davis), or their good-natured kids, Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly).
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The fact that Vera shows not a trace of guilt about either of these things—as well as the matter-of-fact manner in which she performs the abortions, capped with a sunny speech about how “it’ll all come away, and you’ll be right as rain!”—could make her seem something of a monster. But Leigh and the cherubic Staunton are too forceful in their desire to make you believe in this character’s goodness: In case you missed details such as Vera’s always-kind words and her happy humming as she polishes other people’s gilded fireplaces, Vera’s family and friends are given to speaking of her selflessness, often. It’s all laid on a bit heavily, to be sure, but it’s also so convincing that when Vera’s actions are finally questioned—after a chain of events sparked by one of her girls’ becoming gravely ill—you may find yourself clucking in disapproval.
Leigh’s film is shameless in other ways, too. The rape and subsequent pregnancy of a wealthy teenager, Susan (Sally Hawkins), seems to exist only to show the difference in care that money can buy; after Susan spends her secret weekend with the nuns, she’s forgotten about. And Vera’s attempt to pair off the dowdy, timid Ethel with an equally dowdy, timid neighbor, Reg (Eddie Marsan), is initially touching, until you realize that the awww! factor seems to come more from the sight gag of two awkwardly horny, slump-shouldered misfits than the idea of a couple of lonely souls finding each other.
Leigh excels, however, at creating an atmosphere that sucks you in despite his dramatic missteps. Vera Drake is remarkably silent—there’s rarely any music to adorn scenes from its first half, which show Vera scooting about her usually foggy day and move as briskly as the busy bee herself. And the casting, at least in the Drake family, is impeccable: Kelly could be Staunton’s own child; Davis and Adrian Scarborough, who plays Stan’s brother, Frank, not only resemble each other, but also have their hair parted and combed in the exact same way, as if still wearing their childhood hairstyles. Costuming is similarly given a great deal of attention, with the fibers of their clothes as worn as the working-class family’s faces.
Staunton’s heartbreakingly earnest performance, though, is what delivers Vera Drake’s effective gut-punch. Her Vera is simultaneously able-bodied and frail-looking, and to watch her usually smiling face—with which Leigh often fills the screen—turn terrified when she realizes the possible consequences of her actions is devastating. This poor little woman, Leigh seems to be saying, was only trying to help people in need. The accomplishment of the film is that whatever you may think of Vera’s actions, you feel the tragedy of her fate as if it were yours.
Head in the Clouds, John Duigan’s schizophrenic sprawler about a hedonistic young woman in ’30s Europe, doesn’t offer anyone to cozy up to. There’s plenty of virtue here to counter the selfishness, but the characters and story are too dull to make you care one way or the other.
The film is a love story with a history lesson attached. Its central couple, free-spirited socialite Gilda (Charlize Theron) and serious poor boy Guy (Stuart Townsend), meet gaggingly cute at Cambridge, when Gilda busts into Guy’s dorm room to avoid getting caught while on her way out after visiting her boyfriend. Without so much as an exchange of names, Gilda ends up spending the night there, in a quaint scene characterized by a nocturnal emission and dialogue such as “You also have a nice willy, and I’m hoping to dream about it!” Naturally, Guy falls in love.
Gilda starts sleeping with Guy but stays with her boyfriend, at least until she decides to leave both of them to travel around the world. A couple of years later, she writes Guy a note summoning him to Paris, where she’s about to open an art exhibition. Guy comes running, to find Gilda still sluttily fabulous, involved openly with a man of little consequence and almost openly with Mia (Penélope Cruz), a model and dancer who’s a nurse on the side. Gilda persuades Guy to ditch his teaching job and move to Paris, so he, Gilda, and Mia can lead a happily bohemian life, ignoring the pesky little war over in Spain that’s bringing the rest of Europe down.
The three of them spend their time dancing, drinking, and sharing a bed. (Which makes Mia’s later confession to Guy, “You know she and I were lovers?” a bit of a head-scratcher.) But eventually Guy and the Spanish-born Mia can’t keep their consciences quiet any longer, and they leave Gilda to help with the war effort.
Here Duigan completely shifts tones, suddenly giving full focus to something that before seemed only a topic of casual conversation. The glamour of Paris is exchanged for the gray of a wintry, battle-torn Spain, though, surprisingly, neither color is lost nor action gained. Head in the Clouds has limped along until this point, devoid of passion or plot as Gilda and Guy were repeatedly thrown together to yak uninterestingly about their relationship. But it limps along after this point as well: Guy and Mia, boring as bons vivants, are just as lifeless when shown living nobly, and though it’s really not that upsetting an absence, Gilda is practically forgotten about for a while.
Theron, bobbed and pretty again after her Oscar-winning role in Monster, is sufficiently playful despite her flatly written part, which besides delivering some atrocious dialogue asks her to negotiate a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold-worthy plot turn. Cruz’s most vivid moment involves a striptease. And Townsend, Theron’s real-life beau, is even less successful as the personality-free Guy, who wears the same slightly confused, hangdog expression whether seducing a lady or worrying about world events. For all its wealth, partying, and three-ways, Head in the Clouds is shockingly lacking in joie de vivre. CP