The opening sequence of the film shows the titular heroine (in an exquisitely complex performance by Imelda Staunton), a cheerful and diligent middle-aged woman working as a maid for several affluent homes in postwar London, visiting an invalid man at a tenement complex in order to help with household chores, reposition his feet onto his wheelchair in order to make him more comfortable, and fix him a cup of tea before going to one of her employer’s homes for her daily housekeeping. It is a compassionate, nurturing image that is later reinforced in her gentle, soothing voice as she tries to reassure an anxious woman who has sought her out through an intermediary (and blackmarketeer) in order to help her terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The episode is (often humorously) juxtaposed against the efforts of her employer’s daughter to terminate her own pregnancy after a forced sexual encounter with a family friend as she is put in touch with a psychiatrist who coldly – but procedurally – interviews her before (not surprisingly) accommodating her determined request and transferring her to a private hospital for the operation, presumably under the interventional prescription of protecting her mental health. By contrasting the circumstances of the privileged young woman with those of Vera’s impoverished, but equally desperate clientele, Mike Leigh creates an incisive, compelling, and uncompromising, examination of conscience, moral law, humanism, and the disparity of social class.
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