Vera Drake; Constantine

 Vera Drake

I paid a late visit to Vera Drake to see what all the fuss was about, and was immediately sucked into Mike Leigh's hypnotic reconstruction of London in the 1950s, a world where secrets were unspoken, upper lips remained stiff and families sat down together at meal times and helped each other with the washing up.

As everyone knows, the reason why Imelda Staunton as Vera was widely and accurately predicted not to be going to get the Best Actress Oscar was not because of her performance - which was quite simply riveting, but because of Vera's profession or rather not her profession as she didn't take money for it, but her voluntary work as Islington's friendly neighbourhood abortionist.

Most reviewers have used the subject matter of the film - Vera's arrest and trial - to initiate a debate on abortion. Before seeing the film, I wondered what side I would find myself on. While watching it, however, I found the abortion issue to be strangely irrelevant. The fascination of Vera's character lay in her total innocence. She was of the `to those who are pure everything is pure' school, rather like an affectionate dog who it is impossible not to pat even when it lays a mangled corpse at your feet.

Vera's day job was that of cleaning lady, and Leigh's depiction of her employers was an added joy, authentic fifties ladies from their hairstyles and jewellery to the very bars of chocolate they ate. They also served to highlight the hypocrisy of the age through the experience of an upper class girl, the daughter of one of Vera's employers, who was able to obtain a legal abortion under sterile conditions by forking out a large fee.

To debate whether such a character as Vera could really have existed is to miss out on the pleasure of the parallel universe Leigh has so painstakingly reconstructed. Even the tools of Vera's trade the cheese grater, the carbolic soap, the length of hosepipe with its sinister pink bulb - have the sort of macabre fascination of rusting instruments of torture in a museum armoury. Ironically it is probably the very conviction of Leigh's creation that has caused critics to so lose their impartiality as to get worked up over issues that have absolutely no relevance to the present day.


The opening sequences of Francis Lawrence's debut film, Constantine, based on characters from the DC Comics / Vertigo Hellblazer Graphic novels, are genuinely scary. In Mexico, a workman unearths the Spear of Destiny, allegedly the one used to spear Jesus's side at the Crucifixion, and is instantly rammed into by a car travelling at terrifying speed, yet carries on walking as though nothing had happened.

The action then cuts to a tenement where a beautiful young girl, possessed by the devil, is confined to her room and literally climbing up the walls. Enter John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) in the role of Exorcist a far more glamourous, world-weary, chain-smoking, action hero type than the 1960s screen original. He manages to trap the devil in a mirror which he hurls out of the window, narrowly missing the car of his sidekick Chas, a sympathetic portrayal by Shia LaBeouf.

The heroine of the film, Rachel Weisz, plays two characters - identical twins Angela, who kills herself at the beginning of the film by taking a graceful swallow dive off a Los Angeles skyscraper, and Isabel, a cop, who enlists Reeves's help in trying to prove her sister's death was, in fact, murder. Their subsequent journey takes them at high speed through a series of strange encounters with angels and demons who apparently live in contemporary Los Angeles but are visible only to those who, like Reeves and Weisz, have extra sensory powers.

Gradually we learn of the tormented childhoods of both characters. Their reluctance to own that they were `different' had led Constantine to attempt suicide an act for which he is still compelled to atone and Isabel to split from her twin. We meet Satan in a white suit (Peter Stormare) and a splendidly androgynous Angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) plus numerous fire spitting demons, until finally, by an act of sacrifice, Constantine is able to achieve his own and Angela's salvation.

The film is often highly derivative. Superman, Batman, Indiana Jones and even Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ are recognisable influences, but Reeves and Weisz make an attractive team and manage to achieve a certain integrity in their roles, especially when they are allowed to act normally rather than paranormally.LONDON - 22 March 2005 - 760 words

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