Studio: Fine Line Features (released Oct. 10)
Storyline: In 1950s London, Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton), a cheerful and hardworking housekeeper, wife and mother, is involved, completely unbeknown to her family, in performing illegal abortions, and must face the consequences.
About the script: Employing his talent for naturalism, Leigh has constructed a morally complex and relevant period piece around his brilliant lead, a chirpy innocent who “helps out young girls” out of kindness, only to have her life shattered when society condemns her for it. “No matter what anyone legislates, there will always be unwanted pregnancies and there will always be terminations,” Leigh says. “I’ve tried to make a film that confronts you with these things in a gentle way that’s not heavily propagandist.” Leigh is famous for his development process. “I generally work for about six months with actors, and we build the world of the characters through a massive amount of discussion, research and improvisation. Out of that, my job is to distill and construct the actual dramatic piece of cinema. In any strict, conventional sense, there’s never a script. The script is the film; the film is the script.”
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Biggest challenge: “I knew that this had to be a film that looked at good and evil, a good person being criminalized by society,” says Leigh. “To do that without being crass or obvious or, indeed, polemical and propagandist was the big challenge.”
Breakthrough idea: “The most extraordinary moment was a massive improvisation, where the family got together to celebrate the engagement of Reg and Ethel, and this was interrupted by actors coming around as policemen to arrest Vera Drake,” says Leigh. “The actors did not know anything that their characters wouldn’t know, so nobody knew Vera was an abortionist and nobody knew police were going to show up. So that engendered a massive amount of raw material that we were able to draw on to construct the action in the film.”
Standout scene: When Vera’s daughter, Ethel, becomes engaged to Reg. “Because we really got them going as a group of characters and a family, you really felt the waves of warmth,” Leigh says. “It certainly works, and it wouldn’t work if you
didn’t have very brilliant actors. Also, it’s pretty good when the cops come around.”
Choice lines: “After the crisis has happened and Reg comes around the next night, he says, ‘If you can’t feed ’em, you can’t love ’em.’ That’s a very moving moment for me,” says the helmer.
Writer’s bio: Leigh has been writing and directing provocative films about working-class Brits since 1971. With a total of 10 films, including “Life Is Sweet,” “Naked,” and “All or Nothing,” he has received a slew of award nominations, including Oscar mentions for screenplay for “Secrets & Lies” in 1996 (also a nom for helming) and “Topsy-Turvy” in 1999. Leigh won the Golden Palm at Cannes for “Secrets & Lies,” and this year took home the Golden Lion for “Vera Drake” at the Venice Film Festival.