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Writer/director Mike Leigh (Topsy Turvy, Secrets & Lies) paints an extraordinary portrait of a selfless woman who is completely devoted to, and loved by, her working class family. Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) spends her days doting on them and caring for her sick neighbor and elderly mother. However, she also secretly visits women and helps them induce miscarriages for unwanted pregnancies. While the practice itself was illegal in 1950s England, Vera sees herself as simply helping women in need. When she is finally found out by the authorities, Vera's world and family life rapidly unravel.
 

 Vera Drake

Most of my movies have been contemporary. I always write my own stories, and it has usually felt right to set them in the immediate world I find around me, as my natural inclination is to make films about ordinary life.

The only disadvantage of drawing from now is that sometimes it’s difficult to know what to leave out—after all, we’re completely surrounded by layers of everything. To put it another way, being hard close up to things makes it less easy to see them in perspective.

So when I glance back at another time, it’s like looking down the wrong end of a telescope, or through a tunnel…I have a more selective, a kind of distilled view, and that helps, although I always do masses of research, to fill out the details.

But in many ways, making period films is much harder than doing modern ones. Movies like my Topsy-Turvy, which was set in Gilbert and Sullivan’s world of 1885, or my new Vera Drake, which takes place in London in 1950, pose real difficulties for independent movie-makers like me, who operate outside the studio system, with very low budgets.

One of the biggest problems is shooting urban exteriors. Of course, it’s easy in countryside—a field or a forest or a beach looked much the same in 1885 or 1950 as they do in 2004. In a contemporary film, you can just go out and film on a real street, and let people and buildings and cars just be themselves, often without knowing they’re in a movie.

But when it comes to period city scenes, you need plenty of dough if you want to build replica streets or to hire horses or old cars or whatever it is. Or you can do it by using all the new tricks of digital technology. Either way is expensive. You’ve got to be selective and inventive, and just have very few street scenes…or miss them out altogether, and hope that the stuff that is on the screen will be so interesting that the audience won’t notice!

Then there’s all the work that goes into making a period film look and feel authentic. This means not only the right costumes, furniture, props and locations, as well as the correct catchphrases, food, popular music and so forth, but also managing to get the spirit of the period, through the choice of tones and colours, and the way the cinematographer shoots the film photographically.

All this takes a great deal of team-work, and Vera Drake was a great creative experience for everybody who worked on it—on both sides of the camera.

By the time we came to shoot the picture, each actor could tell you every detail of his or her character’s life in World War II. Even the poor guys who had been prisoners-of-war in Burma, although they preferred to keep their experiences to themselves.