Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Recasting 2004: "Vera Drake"

When I came to the year 2004 in my considerations for this recasting project, I passed over Vera Drake rather quickly. I remember thinking that I liked the movie and loved Imelda Staunton's performances in it, but that it seemed so unlikely and removed from what I thought Meryl would do that I needed to consider other options. Annette Bening's role in Being Julia seemed like a reasonable alternative--also Oscar-nominated, accent, even a fun younger romance for the character to sink her teeth into. But the latter never really got me excited about picturing Meryl in the role. 

So I returned to thought of Vera, to the point that I watched it again for the first time since seeing it in the theater in early 2005. I was living in Phoenix for one of my grad school clinicals, and I drove up to Flagstaff to a more obscure theater that was still playing it. It felt like an Oscar movie in a good way. Something that wouldn't necessarily make money, but that smartly evoked a very real human experience in the portrayal of this family. 

Cut to my second viewing, and I don't know what I was thinking in possibly not recasting Meryl in this role. As mentioned, Imelda Staunton brilliantly portrays the title character, a low to middle class house cleaner in 1950 London who just happens to also perform illegal abortions. After one of the girls she "helps" gets seriously ill from the procedure, the girl's mother is forced to give Vera up, and Vera is arrested. She's sentenced to two years in prison, with Vera and her unwitting family absolutely despondent.

It is such an emotional performance from Staunton. I couldn't remember for sure whether we ever found out exactly why Vera bothers to help these girls out (while her childhood friend profits from it without Vera knowing). But we learn that Vera found herself in a similar situation as a younger woman, and likely now felt compelled to offer assistance for anyone as desperate as she once found herself. 

The movie does such a good job of building up our fondness for Vera as this scene approaches. She works hard. She is incredibly devoted to her family, finding a suitor for her awkward and plain daughter. She has such a sunny disposition, that the overwhelming horror she feels for bringing shame upon her family almost does her in. The real shame, in my opinion, lies in the fact that there was no way for these women, some of them raped, others probably unable to choose whether they add to their already enormous broods, and that there was no option for them to safely and legally terminate their pregnancies. Sadly, I suspect it's still like this is many many parts of the world. 

It likely would've been a major long shot for Meryl to participate in this. Director Mike Leigh tends to primarily work with English actors. I haven't read specifically that he had Staunton in mind from the start, but even if he didn't, Meryl was unlikely to be on his list. But stranger things have happened in the world of film-making. People get whispers of scripts out there and actors drop out last minute. I imagine Meryl would've been drawn to the intensity of this character's scenes and vague backstory. And she would've gotten to do what would probably be considered a "working class" London accent. 

The film was an enormous success critically. Staunton won both the BAFTA and Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, and was nominated for the Globe and Oscar as well, where she lost out to Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. Vera Drake was such a small movie that it didn't make much money beyond its budget, but what it lacks in star power and a Hollywood director, it makes up for with intimate staging and exquisite, compassionate acting. 


  1. Excellent choice Jeff. This movie would really be a departure for Meryl in terms of characters she's played.

    2005 appears to be a bit of a washout in terms of quality roles for older females. I still think Felicity Huffman was most deserving of the Oscar for her portrayal of "Bree" in "Transamerica". Very sensitive and affecting.

    I toyed with both "Flightplan" and "Little Fish". Neither feel like a great fit though.

    I have my eye on two great roles from 2006 and would happily move "Notes On A Scandal" , which has one of the most fabulous, vindictive "villains" of all time, Barbara Covett. The book was published in 2003 so could easily have been produced as a movie one year earlier.

    Instead I opt to recast Meryl in "Doubt: A Parable" on Broadway.i know this is a bit of a cheat but I've made no secret I'd love to see more theatre work for Meryl and maybe the space of the stage would have given Meryl a greater opportunity to wring ever drop out of the character of "Sister Alolysius".

  2. Felicity Huffman's role would not be appropriate for any straight actor nowadays!

    1. I thought of this too, and agree, it would be problematic.

    2. Thirded. Still, a wonderful performance. I find 2005 so much harder than any other year this millennium