My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 2004: Imelda Staunton in "Vera Drake"

British actress Imelda Staunton received her first Oscar nomination and critical praise around the world for her performance as the title character in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake – the story about a working class woman in London during the 1950s.

Vera Drake is a symbol of efficiency and charity. She works as a house cleaner, takes care of her old mother and a sick neighbor and is also devoted to her husband and her children. They form a strong and loving family, full of loyal support and kindness and Vera uses all the time she has to be with them – except a few times a month when she secretly works as an abortionist.

Imelda Staunton is incredibly effective in developing Vera’s character and displaying her kindness in the early scenes of Vera Drake. She successfully achieves that no part of Vera’s kindness and goodness seems overdone or unbelievable but instead Imelda Staunton leaves little doubt that Vera is a woman who was born to help and be gentle and loving. In these early scenes, Imelda Staunton builds the foundation for everything that would later happen to Vera and already helps to make these coming scenes believable, too.

Thanks to Miss Staunton, the always cheerful Vera who constantly hums sunny melodies becomes a very real and everyday character but she is also able to challenge the audience when she shows that Vera is involved in a matter that couldn’t be more controversial. From time to time, a friend of Vera visits her and tells her about a young girl or a woman who got pregnant and wants to get rid of the child. So Vera packs up her things and with the same cheerful face she goes to work she also visits these scared women in their homes and with the help of a few simple things she performs an abortion – or as Vera calls it, she helps these women to get their bleeding back. Imelda Staunton gives a performance that is both simple and complex at the same time. She shows that moral dilemmas don’t exist for Vera – she is convinced of what she is doing and she sees no problem with it. Like a grandmother, she comes to these women and with kind words she prepares them for the abortion. After a few more encouraging words, she leaves just as quickly as she had gotten there. Not because she is afraid but simply because her work is done. Even though Vera is a kind and loving woman, she does not try to comfort these women in any way. Some of them are scared, others cry desperately – in these moments, Vera simple stands besides them and waits. Imelda Staunton is wonderful in these scenes as she constantly challenges the viewers and their own beliefs with her performance. She does what she thinks is right but at the same time she never seems to really think about the women themselves. Vera’s niceness would probably make her give her last coat to a freezing person but it also shows that Vera is an uneducated woman who does not think about consequences or the mental state of her ‘patients’. Imelda Staunton never tries to turn Vera Drake into a saint or a devil and leaves it open for every viewer himself to decide about her character and her actions.

It’s a story about morality and legality. The movie and Imelda Staunton don’t insist that Vera Drake is morally on the right side and does good in helping these women, instead, it shows that for the women from the working class who have no money and who would be punished for performing an abortion (which is illegal at the time) there is no other option than Vera Drake. The movie shows that it is a repressing society that creates women like Vera Drake who mean good but are surely not the best solution.

She also keeps showing the many sides of Vera Drake and wonderfully underlines the simplicity of the character in both the scenes of the abortions and with her family. The moment that Vera Drake leaves these women in their homes, they are forgotten for her and her own family becomes her main focus again. Imelda Staunton’s ability to portray the simple world of Vera Drake, her happiness, her simplicity, her joy in little things, her satisfaction with her husband and her family, is so fascinating because it creates such a strong contrast to her secret life. Imelda Staunton puzzles the viewer with Vera’s carefree attitude about her illegal activities since it is never apparent if she is really understanding the possible consequences.

All this is finally answered during one of the greatest close-up in movie history. When suddenly the police enters Vera’s living room during a family celebration. While the camera stays on her face, Imelda Staunton shows in a scene that is a master-class in acting how the joy and cheerfulness disappear forever from Vera’s face and her personality. As her face changes from surprised to disbelieve to shock and to fear mixed with a kind of acceptance it becomes clear that Vera has always been aware that this day might come but she never really expected it. When she is alone with the police she says without hesitation “I know why you’re here.” There is no doubt in her why the police came for her.

With that single close-up, Imelda Staunton changed her entire character and also the atmosphere of the whole movie. Her joyful smile and loving kindness has gone and is replaced by a broken woman who can’t control her tears. Like an animal caught in a cage, Vera is unable to act in this situation. In the second half of the movie Imelda Staunton delivers a heartbreaking tour-de-force as a woman who knows that she has lost everything and is not able to deal with this. When she has to take off her wedding ring at the police or her complete inability to tell her husband the truth are moments of incredible emotional devastation.

Vera’s naivety and her goodness that Imelda Staunton established earlier also make it believable that Vera never did any abortions for money and instead simply performed them to help these girl – when she learns that her friend who has sent her to these girls secretly took money from them for Vera’s work, it is another blow for Vera.

Vera may have believed that she has done the right thing but once the police found out about this, she knows that there is no way out for her. It’s clear that she knew about the illegality of her activities but it seems that never really thought about it because for her it was more important to do what she felt is right.

Vera Drake is a woman who doesn’t make it easy for the viewers to either hate or love her. The movie shows that what Vera is constantly doing is clearly dangerous – one of the young girls almost died after the abortion and it is unclear what other damage Vera might have done in the many years before. Just like the society makes it too difficult for women who can’t have a child, it also makes it too easy for women like Vera Drake who mean well but simply don’t understand the full reach of their doings. Imelda Staunton is able to capture all these aspects and gives one of the most heartbreaking and complex performances to ever grace the screen for which she gets


joe burns said...

I knew it! Great writeup! I think she actually had the best chance at beating Swank.

Fritz said...

Mmh, I don't know who might have been the runner-up that year. Only Swank was in a Best-Picture-nominee...Annette Bening surely got a lot of votes...I think that the second place was between Annette and Imelda.