Given the circumstances, then, Vera Drake (***1/2 out of four) could emerge as the right movie at the right time. Hints about America's future may theoretically be unearthed in Great Britain's past, or at least the past as catalogued by writer-director Mike Leigh in his latest gem.
Leigh, the grand improvisational master of Secrets and Lies and Topsy-Turvy, again asked his cast members to pitch in when it came to forging their own characterizations and the attendant dialogue. His generous approach -- which taps into a wealth of diverse experiences rather than relying on the vision of one individual -- has always yielded tremendous returns, producing movies that convey the messy contradictions of real life rather than the pre-ordained conventions of a controlled fiction. Leigh's films can be tagged as mellow melodramas, works that illustrate humankind's emotional whiplashes without sentimentalizing or sensationalizing them.
Imelda Staunton, best known for her supporting turns in such costumers as Shakespeare In Love and Sense and Sensibility, plays the title role, one of the most unassuming lead characters imaginable. Vera Drake is no Norma Rae, Charlotte Gray or even Mildred Pierce, to name three other heroines who've had movies named after them. Instead, she's the embodiment of simplicity and domesticity: Living with her family in a small apartment in 1950 London, she's employed as a cleaning lady for an upper-crust clientele. It's rare when Vera isn't doing something for someone else, whether it's making house calls to the elderly and infirm, chatting up a lonely neighbor (Eddie Marsan) or cooking dinner for her loved ones: her patient husband Stan (Phil Davis), their congenial son Sid (Daniel Mays) and their painfully shy daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly). And whenever she gets a spare moment, she usually spends it preparing tea (the extent to which Vera offers everyone around her a cuppa, as if it were the working-class equivalent of a communal wafer and wine, provides a mild chuckle). A shining example of the selfless saint, Vera may not be a woman of deep thoughts, but she's a person of deep feelings, a trait that will end up disrupting -- and possibly destroying -- her life.
Since this is England in the 1950s, well over a decade before abortions became legal in that country, most women in need of such a service had to explore backdoor avenues. In this film, these unfortunates end up turning to Vera, who, unbeknownst to her family, has spent close to two decades providing abortions for the needy. Unlike her loathsome friend (Ruth Sheen) who orchestrates the meetings and relieves the desperate girls of their dough in the process, Vera's never accepted money for her services -- she views it strictly as "helping young girls out," a humanitarian gesture. The law doesn't share her benevolent outlook, however, and when one of the procedures leads to complications, this frail woman suddenly finds herself Public Enemy Number One.
Mike Leigh doesn't need to proselytize to punch across any pro-choice agenda: The mere sight of this diminutive woman -- now reduced to a pile of tears -- being surrounded by a tag team of police officers (who, granted, treat her with care and compassion) conveys the absurdity of how select laws are declared and enforced. In fact, one could easily imagine this being a movie about a woman who gets busted for providing marijuana to ailing individuals for medicinal purposes.
More pointedly, Leigh includes a subplot about a young girl (Sally Hawkins) from a well-to-do family who finds herself pregnant after being raped by an acquaintance. This poor child, who doesn't tell her parents about the assault or the pregnancy, still suffers emotionally, of course, but getting an abortion for her isn't a problem since she has money to spend on the finest medical care available. The hypocrisy of this scenario won't be lost on those who believe that the greatest divide in our own nation isn't between races or sexes or religions but between the haves and the have-nots.
Leigh's greatest asset as a storyteller is his honesty, his willingness to toss matters out into the open and let audience members draw their own conclusions. While it's safe to say that Leigh stands behind Vera Drake, he also refuses to turn her into a martyr. Indeed, the movie is so subtle, it's easy to see pro-lifers not finding offense with its depictions: After all, one of Vera's illegal abortions does nearly cause the death of a young woman, and the fact that Vera in essence risks the happiness of her husband and children (who will be miserable and lost if she's put behind bars) will strike some as an example of misplaced priorities. Abortion has been a divisive issue for a long time now, and Vera Drake honors that struggle by refusing to cheapen the debate.