Imelda Staunton delivers a career-best performance in Brit director Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, an engrossing drama about a down-to-earth woman performing backstreet abortions in 50s London. After a hesitant opening during which the film's tone is established (working classes=good; middle classes=bad), the film becomes a subtle examination of a simple woman caught up in a complex world. Anyone unmoved by Staunton's performance really should check their pulse: they may well be dead.
It's difficult to know what Vera Drake (Staunton) dispenses more of: goodwill or cups of tea. Adored by her husband Stan (the ever-dependable Phil Davis) and children Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly), she manages to be both the cornerstone of her family and pillar of the community (you try it!). She also performs illegal abortions for "girls who are in trouble", a service she does for free and without her family's knowledge. When one of the abortions goes wrong, however, Vera's secret life comes to the attention of the police...
"NOT EVERYONE'S CUP OF TEA"
Aside from the performances, which are uniformly excellent, the greatest strength of Mike Leigh's drama is its non-judgmental stance on abortion. Leigh says he wants his film to trigger debate, and that's sure to happen - especially in countries where abortion is still illegal.
Technically this is also his finest film to date, with life in 50s London beautifully captured on screen (although it's safe to assume that none of the cast kept their wardrobe at the end of the shoot). There are some quibbles: the middle classes sound like they've just walked out of a Noel Coward play, and Vera is so saintly you start looking for sightings of her halo. Not everyone's cup of tea, then, but definitely a movie that demands to be seen by discriminating audiences everywhere.