Spent all of yesterday up at Lincoln Center soaking up more New York Film Festival action. And I’m heading back there soon for Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers. So I don’t know if I’ll have time to drop a review today about the centerpiece film, Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education.
Both Zhang and Almodóvar are extraordinary directors whose films I always look forward to. Mike Leigh, on the other hand, has never really been my cup of tea. I appreciate his idiosyncratic method of building a film through actor improvisations over six or more months. (We even intended to go that way with Ten Manipulations at one point.) He doesn’t write the script until after all the rehearsals, although clearly he comes in with a clear idea of the story he wants to tell — otherwise the rehearsals would have no structure.
In this case the story is about the eponymous Mrs. Drake (Imelda Staunton) and, to a lesser extent, her family. (The one outside-the-family subplot is the exception that probes the rule.) The time is post-WWII and the place would appear to be London. Vera is employed as a domestic in several upper-class households and also finds time to provide no-cost abortions to “young women who need a little help.”
The Oscar buzz has already begun on the performance of Mrs. Staunton. In her hands, Vera is a hyper-caffeinated saint, polishing brass or performing simple surgery with equal cheeriness, her default succor for the world’s ills a nice ‘hot cuppa’ tea. Despite her chipper, samaritan goodness, Leigh argued in the Q&A that Vera was not intended to be a saint. Not to quibble with Mr. Leigh (his movie, after all) but on this point I think he is wrong. The only way you couldn’t see Vera as a saint is if you truly believed that abortions are morally offensive, to the point you can condemn a person even though she doesn’t think that way. Mrs. Staunton, when Vera is arrested, gets the opportunity to cry a lot. But this doesn’t an Oscar make, in my opinion. The two actresses in Or (My Treasure) displayed greater emotional range and had more, I think, indelible characters. Of course, as my girlfriend put it, they won’t win because they don’t speak English.
Other than the sainthood, the film was surprisingly balanced on the issue of abortion. I won’t spoil the few twists Leigh has (no O. Henry he, though Secrets & Lies had a whopper), but I will speak to what I find to be the strength of his films, and what often makes up for the lack of forward momentum in the storytelling: the documentary sense of time and place and process. Never for a moment do you doubt that Vera’s husband is fixing an old car, or the factual veracity of Vera’s home-made abortion kit. The film is lensed beautifully, has great performances (especially supporting players) and does, as Leigh put it in the Q&A, confront the fact that “there will always be unwanted pregnancies and there will always be abortions.” So how do we deal with that? Well, let’s not start by arresting saints.