"Vera Drake," "The Assassination of Richard Nixon": Some Thoughts
Some brief thoughts on two movies I saw recently: Vera Drake and The Assassination of Richard Nixon ...
Both are excellent, but make sure you bring along plenty of Paxil.
In the title role of Vera Drake, Imelda Staunton is affecting as an unassuming, compassionate wife and mother in 1950s-era Britain who earns money as a housekeeper but also "helps out" young women each Friday by performing illegal abortions. With deliberate pacing and painstaking sensitivity, director Mike Leigh does not so much make a pro-choice film as he simply offers an absorbing and focused story of one woman's travails trying to do the right thing.
It is not a perfect movie. Leigh is known for welcoming improvisation on the set, and one suspects that sense of openness resulted in a few errant narrative strands. A subplot regarding a rich young woman who is raped and impregnated simply dissolves into the ether, and a melodramatic musical score occasionally lapses into parody. But the film draws you in, unfolding slowly and featuring top-notch performances. Milk Plus offers an excellent review.
For an even bleaker cinematic experience, there is Niels Mueller's Assassination of Richard Nixon. It tells the real-life story of Samuel Byck (spelled Bicke in the movie, perhaps an homage to another symbol of Seventies-era alienation, Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle), a depressive office-furniture salesman whose downward spiral in 1974 led him to try hijacking an airplane in hopes of crashing it into the White House. In the shadow of 9-11, that seemingly far-fetched scenario is particularly chilling.
But Assassination is chiefly a character study, and Sean Penn is amazing -- amazing -- in the lead role. The film is less about Bicke's pathetic plot to kill Tricky Dick so much as it's about Bicke's own self-assassination. Even as he blames the world for a string of woes -- including a messy divorce and failure at the job -- Bicke sabotages himself little by little in his refusal to accept life's small indignities. The underlying irony of Mueller's film (he co-wrote the script with Kevin Kennedy) is that much of the disgust and resentment Bicke feels seems entirely justified. Roger Ebert offers a characteristically thoughtful review in the Chicago Sun-Times.