(Edited highlights of the panel's review taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)
Julie Myerson, we might think we know everything about Mike Leigh by now, after all these films, but in many ways this is quite a surprising film?
It is. I think it's the best thing he has done. It's a fantastic, deeply affecting, complex film. I love the way it's about a good person, doing a wrong thing for the right reasons with mostly good outcomes. All the way through you know what's going to happen, you wait and watch to see how. Imelda Staunton's performance, again, it's so complex. Not what you're expecting, which is what makes it fantastic.
Mark, it's one of his only two non-contemporary films, the other being Topsy-Turvy, the Gilbert and Sullivan film. It's unusual for him to go into the past. Has that worked for him?
It has. It's incredible how much at home he is. I agree with Julie, I think it's one of his best films. The real triumph of it for me is that it's a very personal story. It's emotionally involving while you're watching it. It's afterwards that the politics come into play and the day afterwards, when you consider the issues. You mention Imelda Staunton, she is great, but the supporting cast are absolutely terrific. Phil Davis is marvellous. In particular, Eddie Marsen, a rising star, who plays the son-in-law to be, who brings an awful lot to what is essentially a very small role. He is demonstrating a genuine sympathy with his characters, a genuine understanding of the complexities of the issues. It's polemical without ever bashing you over the head. You could watch it either being pro- or anti-abortion and not feel like you were being lectured to. I think it's a really strong piece of work.
The triumph is at no point is anybody's position caricatured. At no point is anybody two-dimensional. Everybody is given a considerable amount of back story and sympathy. What's smart about it is that you come out of it thinking you have seen the problem explored from all areas and you are allowed to decide for yourself.
I think it is a little caricatured. It is a good film, it's very gripping and I couldn't take my eyes off the screen, but I don't think it's very moving in an odd sense. I didn't find it moving, because I knew what was going to happen right from the beginning. It was like watching The Passion of The Christ, in emotional terms, watching poor Imelda Staunton being crucified one minute after the other, which she does brilliantly. She does the first half the film being wonderfully happy, the second half of the film being crucified. It's a wonderful performance within its range but also there are some doubts one could raise about the veracity of these characters. They never swear. The characters are either very good or very bad. The woman who sells the abortions on behalf of Vera Drake is a cantankerous, unpleasant woman who makes the only racist comment that takes place in the context of the film, and then we get to the completely lovable working-class family. Admittedly, he is more complex now with the authority figures, which he never used to be.
We are not putting across the fact there is a lot of comedy in this film. There are so many good lines. The laughs are in the characters. I don't agree with you that the woman making money from the abortions is a wholly bad character. I think she is quite understandable and complex.
She is just trying to make cash out of vulnerable young women. I don't think there are any good motives on her part at all. There are a number of major implausibilities in it. The determination to make Vera completely sympathetic is all about the question of...like she says, "Have you ever harmed any of these women in 20 years", and she says, "Never, not once," as if she could have known that in the first place. He is so anxious to establish her as a completely and utterly heroic character, and that's nice, it's a technique, but it's not entirely believable.
Another great defence of it, I thought, is that if you think that fiction can work as social history, which I think it can, when you look Leigh's early films, you get an incredible sense of Britain. He's constrained here because the budget is so small. That seems to be a scandal, that he couldn't get a lot of money. He can barely afford to go outside, but the level of historical detail is extraordinary, as to how all the procedure works, legally and everything else, but also the dressing of the houses.
The key to that are the historically accurate performances. You have said you don't think they speak convincingly. I think they do. I think the slightly timid manner that he manages to get out of those performers is exactly historically correct. I don't agree with you that what you watch is Vera being crucified. I think you watch Vera Drake going through an absolute kaleidoscope of emotional and intellectual changes. I think they're brilliantly done by Imelda Staunton. I didn't feel it was in any way masochistic.
I do think it's a very good film, I'm just simply saying it's not without its flaws. I don't think it's his best film; it's one of his best films.