The title character, played by Imelda Staunton, bustles cheerfully through the slums of postwar London like a tweedy Mother Teresa. A humble, middle-aged housekeeper, she makes time to bring smiles and cups of tea to elderly shut-ins and infirm war veterans. She also leads a kind of double life as a back-alley abortionist, using a syringe and soapy water to aid penniless women "in trouble."
Vera Drake's first half lays out social inequities by taking an "Upstairs, Downstairs" view of pregnancy termination in the era. As Vera visits women of all ages in squalid flats, we also follow Susan (Sally Hawkins), daughter of one of Vera's employers, who becomes pregnant after a date rape. Hawkins movingly conveys Sally's silent trauma, but as she maneuvers through the safe, discrete and bizarrely formal abortion options available to the rich, she fares far better than Vera's "poor girls."
Leigh paints a rich, textured portrait of London in 1950, with the black market still flourishing and Vera's family still shell-shocked from wartime horrors. At times Leigh and his supporting players pour on the quirks with heavy hands, providing so many lumpish men and cringing women that Vera Drake flirts with Dickensian caricature.
But when the authorities catch up to Vera in the film's second half, Vera Drake becomes an engrossing account of a decent soul demolished by the sympathetic yet implacable forces of the state, led by Peter Wight's soft-spoken Inspector Webster. After the police intrude in the midst of a happy family gathering, a close-up on Staunton shows her expression of permanent cheer slowly collapse, her sunny outlook extinguished.
In the quiet procedures of Vera's interrogation and arrest, Staunton embodies Vera's complete emotional devastation. She even reacts with baffled shock at the word "abortion," unable to square her charitable intentions with their illegal nature. As the system turns her into a martyred outcast, Vera Drake insists that her unspoken vision of a kinder, gentler world, however fragile, is the one we all deserve. Opens Oct. 22 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.