Vera Drake, then Sideways

A family portrait: Alex Kelly, Daniel Mays, Imelda Staunton, and Phil Davis in Vera Drake (Photo: Fine Line Features)

Except for a Schoenbergian choir of atonal angels, whose dissonant siren wail outbursts cue to ruinous effect in scenes that would have stood dramatically without such aid from the soundtrack, Mike Leigh does rather well by Vera Drake.

Leigh directs the film so skillfully in crosscut contrasts between the working class and upper sets of 1950 London, it surprises me that he has a bum ear for music. The composer, or culprit in this case, Andrew Dickson, can only share so much of the blame. Leigh, by this overbearing score, compromises his material to too great an extent for me to feel much enthusiasm for the film overall, well acted and insightful though it is.

As I watched the movie, and for a couple of weeks afterward, I thought Imelda Staunton’s Volpi Cup-winning performance in the title role was merely good, but nothing transcendent. On the surface, Vera consists of little more than, “There now, dear, how about a nice cuppa tea?” Vera addresses her husband as “Dad”; she exudes the same modest, chipper good humor and warm selflessness whether scrubbing the floors of a rich bitch or giving a homemade, illegal abortion to a poor girl.

And yet in its seeming ordinariness lies the greatness of Staunton’s work. I cannot, try as I may, manage to get Vera out of my mind. Leigh and his editor Jim Clark abet Staunton in juxtapositions as subtle as they are heart-rending. A young man of privilege drunkenly forces himself on and assaults a prim, high society virgin, the daughter of one of Vera’s employers, and Leigh cuts to a day after shot of gentle Vera, gathering the morning milk bottles from her doorstep.

Staunton’s performance recalls Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba. Simple, drab exteriors deceive us with their depths.

vinoSomething similar might be said for Paul Giamatti, a homely, 37-year-old, potbellied chap whose role as Harvey Pekar last year in American Splendor was one of the most entertaining, exhilaratingly bitter comic turns, oh, perhaps in film history. Giamatti’s work went largely unrecognized by critics’ groups and other awards-mongers eager to touch the hem of Bill Murray’s emperor-like old clothes.

A year later, having missed the boat, our nation’s scribbling self-congratulators are falling all over their Smith-Coronas to praise—no, to overpraise—Giamatti’s altogether decent efforts in the mediocre Sideways. Indeed, the lockstep chorus is so loud in their unswerving unanimity to place this desiccated little film on Parnassus, Sideways stands an excellent chance, if it can be called that, of becoming 2004’s Lost in Translation. It’s going to be the official movie that everyone gets behind. Or else.

When first we see Miles (Giamatti), he’s in a coffee bar ordering a spinach croissant, and Miles ostentatiously trills the French pronunciation for all its worth. By the time he’s claiming to detect “the faintest soupçon of asparagus, a hint of Edam cheese” with his nostrils flaring into a glass of red wine (Giamatti makes this highly amusing), we’ve already witnessed Miles robbing his 70-year-old mother blind. It’s a bracing, truthful moment: the financially shaky adult who’s forced to steal. Giamatti doesn’t create a huge display of Miles’s sorrow and misery—it’s all there in his face. He must raid her savings. Miles has a fragile network of pretensions to support; the lattes and the wines sustain the shell of his identity, and of course, he can’t really be honest with his mother, a suburban loon content with television, because of the aesthetic disconnect in temperament.

Before Sideways forsakes character study in favor of idiot plot halfway through its interminable 124 minutes, the director Alexander Payne uses split screens—doubles, quads, and triples—to convey the motion of travel. The cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who gave the New England winter of Moonlight Mile an especially crisp glow, does a spectacular job of capturing the sunlit haze and natural beauty of the central California Santa Ynez Valley. If nothing else (and there’s plenty of nothing in the stretched-out longueurs that Payne mistakes for recreating a 1970s cinematic ethos), the movie gives us the love of the grape. The multiple frames hone in on green and black clusters, there are generous shots of migrant workers harvesting the vines, and of the close proximity between wine country and cattle land. Later (back to single screen), Giamatti and Virginia Madsen play out the momentous, awkward tension leading up to that first kiss, and they’re terribly real. The rest of Sideways, much like every second of Payne’s previous film, About Schmidt, is just a steaming heap of excrement. – NPT

October 21, 2004