Vera Drake (12A)

A bright light shining out of the dark ages
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The Independent Culture

Topsy-Turvy, his 1999 film about Gilbert and Sullivan, revealed Mike Leigh's hitherto-unsuspected genius for the sympathetic reconstruction of the past. His new film confirms it, recreating a more recent era of British history, yet one which strangely feels more distant than Topsy-Turvy's Victorian age. Vera Drake is set in 1950, in a period that seems to have vanished into oblivion, misplaced between Armistice and the release of "Rock Around the Clock". The film's working-class Islington, shot by Dick Pope and designed by Eve Stewart, seems mired in the Dark Ages: its characters inhabit cramped flats with corridors narrow as the tomb, or with curtains yielding to the final stages of mildew, while the peasoup fogs of London legend have moved off the streets and settled into the parlours.

Vera (Imelda Staunton), a middle-aged cleaner, hopes to bring a little light, however dim, to this world. We first see her, squat and brisk, bustle in to visit a weary neighbour ("It's only me"), pour his tea, then bustle out again with a reassuring smile but no words wasted.

She's driven, everyone knows, by "the goodness of her heart", and it is goodness that motivates her other calling, as discreet - and unpaid - abortionist. She helps young girls out, as she puts it, turning up with no-nonsense cheer and a box containing disinfectant, soap and syringe.

Vera Drake is not specifically about abortion in Fifties Britain, nor specifically about Vera. It's really about British society at a particular moment, and it's notable that researcher Lucy Whitton is listed prominently in the front credits, since Vera Drake very much depends on the exactness of minutiae. Everything has the smack of accuracy and, more crucially, of vividness: not just the men's Brilliantined hair and the women's soberly unflattering clothes, but the shapes of their faces, the way characters express themselves or, more tellingly, refuse to.

Vera Drake tells us a great deal about its characters and their world, but its brilliance is that it often does so indirectly. We gradually sense the unspoken differences - beneath the tight-lipped tenderness - between Vera's husband Stan (Phil Davis) and his brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough), for whom he works. While Stan remains in foggy Islington, Frank's successful garage has allowed him to live in a suburban house, with a glamorous, acquisitive wife (Heather Craney) who embodies the spirit of the coming decade. Here, between the lines of the main narrative, is a slice of the history of 20th-century British class structures.

Leigh has often been accused of patronising his working-class characters by making them inarticulate, but in Vera Drake, the restrictions of language are extremely revealing. For the most part, the Drakes speak in formulas, apparently giving away nothing of themselves, even the hearty good humour over supper seeming ritualised.

Yet we sense an underlying unity that apparently doesn't need to be expressed any more openly. Two scenes show Vera and Stan in bed at night: in one, they huddle against the cold; in the other, Stan reminisces about his wartime experiences, and we sense that it's only to Vera that he'd ever open up. The scenes complement each other: comforting the soul and warming the feet are not so different. We also see their timid daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) walking out with her squat, lugubrious suitor (Eddie Marsan). Hunched and wordless, they're the picture of desolation, and the image could easily have seemed mocking; yet you imagine that these two stand a better chance of sustaining their closeness than many of the more emotionally and verbally confident couples in Leigh's present-day stories.

Vera Drake is remarkably achieved in terms of the actors' physical presence. It's an inspired stroke, for example, to cast Davis and Scarborough as brothers, because their physical likeness allows Leigh to show how economic differences affect people. They're both middle-aged, a little twitchy, like sleek, mild rodents, but the disparities - Frank plump and smooth, Stan cold-bitten and whiskery - are eloquent about the way that their incomes have shaped their very being. Physiognomies provide shorthand characterisations: Nicky Henson's sleekly jowled physician, Fenella Woolgar as a taut, gimlet-eyed society gel, Lesley Manville's upper-class lady crisply poised in her salon, as if in a tableau vivant. Still, while faces and bodies are the perfect fit for the roles, the acting is so fine-tuned that there's not a trace of the caricature that often undermines Leigh's films.

Vera's rounds allow Leigh to create a small panorama of early Fifties London: in their scope, this and Topsy-Turvy are the closest he has come to Robert Altman. We see Vera tend to a blasé sophisticate, a desperate poverty stricken mother of seven, a devastated Jamaican girl, the most isolated figure of all. A counterpart to them is Susan (an outstanding Sally Hawkins), a nervous, unloved society girl whose privileged access to a clinic doesn't make her ordeal any easier. But Leigh also allows us glimpses of the world beyond the confines of his main drama: Vera's bullish son Sid (Daniel Mays) enjoys an interlude at the local Palais, while Chris O'Dowd contributes a snappy cameo as Sid's customer in a gents' outfitters, a gauche Irishman who fancies looking like "your man George Raft".

Particularly unsettling throughout is the sense of what can and can't be said in Vera's time. She visits a grimly smoking woman who has taken to her bed; we recognise her as clinically depressed, but Vera's age surely wouldn't. The film is populated with damaged people suffering from conditions for which their world doesn't have a name. It is a society which proceeds by euphemism, secrecy and white lies: to obtain her abortion, Susan has to follow convention and invent a suicidal aunt to satisfy her psychiatrist. The word "abortion" isn't even mentioned until 75 minutes in, and then it's by the law, which classifies Vera's work as "felonious".

Some might argue that Vera Drake doesn't fully illuminate the topic of abortion, but then this is not a social-issues film. Nor is it really about the right and wrong of what Vera does, although it's clear that her naïve confidence in her method turns out, in the case that eventually ruins her, to be extremely dangerous. But we are also made aware of the limitations of her altruism: even her bedside manner isn't quite adequate. Taking leave of one client, Vera's face momentarily drops at the realisation that the woman is asking her to say something more than she knows how to. Vera Drake takes the Blitz-spirit cliché of British working-class resilience and examines it in the cold light of tragedy.

The centrepiece of the film is Imelda Staunton's perfectly tuned performance, sensitive yet unsettlingly opaque, as a woman whose inner being is never truly exposed until her moment of crisis, and then catastrophically. Staunton won the Best Actress award in Venice last year, where Vera Drake also took the Golden Lion. Yet the whole cast is so totally integrated into the manners and constrictions of the world they inhabit, that it really deserves a Best Ensemble award, if there were such a thing. But perhaps the ultimate accolade would be to give Vera Drake a trophy for Least Nostalgic British Period Film.