Staring at society straight in the eye

Renowned film director Mike Leigh is known for brilliant films that offer realistic and honest depictions of British society. He is also known for despising interviews; while cooperating politely with journalists and keeping his distance, he talks only when necessary. His latest prize-winning film «Vera Drake,» which raked in the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival and landed Imelda Staunton a Best Lead Actress award (a prize also gleaned at the European Film Awards), is now playing at local cinemas. A low-budget production, it was financed by the British Film Council, which has shown blind faith in the gifted director’s work. In accordance with customary practice in collaborations with Leigh, the state-run institution did not demand a script for approval prior to supplying the requisite funds. The director’s theatrical projects get the same treatment. Leigh, for example, has committed himself to a British National Theater production next year. At this stage, the theater’s officials know little. The play, they’ve been told, requires an eight-member cast and 18 weeks of rehearsals. Even so, Leigh is free to pursue the project, no questions asked. That is because Leigh is an exceptional figure in his field. He may have emerged from the free-cinema scene of the 1960s and matured as a director for BBC productions, but Leigh creates his own world. For 35 years now, he has made films based on one fundamental principle – realism. His cast members portray the lives of ordinary people lost in loneliness and misery, yet charged with emotion. The family is the core theme. Leigh’s microcosm reflects the richness and perplexity of daily life. His films combine bitter satire and humanity. On the occasion of the current screenings of «Vera Drake,» the British director agreed to conduct a telephone interview. Often laconic in his responses, Leigh had clearly already analyzed a number of themes concerning the film with his cast and other associates. Abortion In her telling interpretation of the title role, Imelda Staunton plays a London house cleaner in 1950, who also assists women with unwanted pregnancies as an illegal abortionist, free of charge. This is kept secret from her family until an error leads to her disclosure, arrest, trial, and imprisonment. What motivated you to deal with the issue of abortion? Abortion is a topic that has always concerned us and will continue to do so, regardless of belief. It concerns all of us, unfortunately. Another film on the same topic, from a different angle, «Palindromes» by Todd Solondz, is about to be screened, while Claude Chabrol filmed «Une affaire des femmes» on the same issue. Is that coincidental? I don’t think think these films are interrelated. Each one differs completely from the other. Also, considering the topic’s universal nature, it’s not unusual that others, too, deal with it. Why set the film in 1950? For two reasons. One is obvious. The film is set at a time when the law on abortion in England was unchanged. Abortion was legalized in 1967. The second reason is that I considered 1950 to be a good time. It’s a period when the war’s shadow is still present and people are still carrying the scars of war. It’s also a time of simplicity – corruption has yet to make its appearance. It’s a healthy period. You’re referring to post-World War II period, a period of hope and solidarity. Yet «Vera Drake» is, probably, a film with a melancholy and bitter atmosphere. Is this an introspective depiction? I don’t agree. There is no melancholy or bitterness. As for the family in the film, it lives in total harmony, which is why it is deeply affected by the truth that rises to the surface and what happens to Vera Drake. As for your comment on «introspective depiction,» I really can’t provide an answer to that question. What happens is extremely complicated. I don’t know… You may have a point. It may have to do with the interpretations of the actors… Vera Drake is so kind-hearted and well-intentioned, almost to the point of being naive. She may be naive. But she’s also sharp and well aware of what she’s doing. She fully believes that she must carry on with her activity, without this meaning that she ignores the danger that threatens her. She doesn’t believe that she’s doing wrong, but instead, that she’s helping people. If you think that she’s naive, then she is. It depends on how we define naivete. When she makes her court appearance, she is unable to defend herself and her activities. She doesn’t talk in court but elaborates with her son at home. She is a clean and respectable woman. Her motives are entirely ethical. The social system portrays her as being corrupt. And it is precisely this system, the law and how it functions, that crushes her. There is no reason for her to defend herself because she has already been defeated by the system. The system is in place, dominant, and the fate of Vera Drake predetermined. Had I made the heroine defend herself, I would have shot a film for Hollywood. Vera Drake is a woman that is destroyed by her actions. In the prison scene during her discussion with two other women in for the same reason, she crumbles emotionally. Is her reaction the result of the burden of her guilt or exhaustion? She is not guilty at all. Vera Drake is a tragic figure. The only thing about which she feels guilty is being the cause of her family’s exposure and destruction. Not about her actions as such. She knew this needed to be done, and that somebody had to do it. Moral dilemmas The film presents a series of moral dilemmas, beginning with unwanted pregnancy. It truly is a moral dilemma. People need to be able to stop an unwanted pregnancy. But in doing so, they’re destroying a life. That’s a moral dilemma. That’s why I shot this film the way I did, to subject viewers to the dilemma. It’s not a simple thing but complicated as you’ve got to deal with your emotions. Abortion is a tragic thing, but we must have the right to choose. It will continue to be practiced in all societies, irrespective of what’s being said or has been said. The issue is that it must be practiced by specialized doctors, not well-intentioned amateurs. In all your films, you focus on daily life. In style, they could belong to classic English literature. Possibly. But it could also be the same feeling evoked when viewing the work of a classic Dutch painter. In essence, though, what you are seeing is a contemporary film. Ailing Hollywood One of the main traits of British cinema is its focus on social problems. What do you attribute this to? You ought to ask those not doing this for their reasons! It’s the most natural thing to focus on the society you live in. Of course, films covering social problems are produced throughout the world. In Britain, perhaps, there is a tradition dating back to Dickens, Chaucer and the artist William Hogarth, who look at society in the eye, as it is. I think it’s perfectly natural. The question should be directed at those that aren’t working this way… Why do you think they’re not? Hollywood’s dominance and the sickness of Hollywood critics is possibly one reason. Sickness? There’s a Hollywood tradition, especially in more recent years, to make films that have no connection with reality. Cliched films based on stereotypes. This is not helping cinema. This interview was translated from the Greek text.