Mike Leigh's new film, Vera Drake, is a vivid remembrance of hard times - the ration-book austerity of war-wearied England - but it does something more imaginative, something one could scarcely have expected of this director: it forges a compelling drama out of moral goodness.
Leigh, like Dickens, tends to thrive on exorbitant modes of behaviour (the volatile humours of David Thewlis in Naked, or the irascible perfectionism of Jim Broadbent's WS Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy) and often oversteps into caricature. Not here. In his portrayal of Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton), a character of irrepressible good cheer and kindness, he locates something at once deeply humane and dangerously innocent.
The time is 1950: in her working-class neighbourhood of north London, Vera, a rosy-faced Mrs Pepperpot, is a dynamo of bustle and bonhomie. She pops in on the infirm and elderly, offering cups of tea and slices of twinkle-eyed sympathy; when she encounters a shy neighbour and learns that all he has to eat is bread and dripping, Vera suggests he come round for dinner. But whereas most of us would leave it at that, a vague, conscience-salving gesture, she actually names the day and makes him welcome.
At home she's the centre of a close family, cherished by her husband Stan (Phil Davis) and her two grown children. (The film is attentive to the way people used to look, and dress, about 20 years older than they actually were). Vera's job involves cleaning the houses of the affluent, which she does as uncomplainingly as everything else, but she also moonlights as a saviour to young women by terminating unwanted pregnancies - work undertaken free of charge and at considerable risk, abortion being a criminal act back then.
Leigh and his production designer Eve Stewart recreate this narrow era with a close-up, textured intimacy, a world of duns and dowdy greens that's almost unrelieved by natural light. The meagreness of life feels oppressive, not just in the black-market bartering of nylons and cigarettes, but in the cramped interiors with their two-bar fires, huge kettles and lumpy sofas. Memories of the Blitz are still raw, and private griefs are tremblingly managed.
Reticence is seen as an endemic part of British life, particularly where sex is concerned: when Vera turns up at young girls' rooms with her surprisingly benign-looking collection of instruments - no knitting-needles, thank God - she's brisk in both her procedure and her description of the after-effect (they're not to worry about the burning sensation "down there").
The language of euphemism is a natural concomitant of this repression: Vera doesn't provide abortions, she "helps young girls out". Yet Leigh hears a touching comedy, too, in the close-mouthed awkwardness between Vera's daughter Ethel (played with cow-like passivity by Alex Kelly) and neighbour Reg (Eddie Marsan), who become engaged without apparently exchanging a whole sentence with one another.
Vera's decency and gentleness illuminate this drab milieu, and epitomise a kind of working-class spirit that might be as much a period detail as the threepenny bit. We want to see such goodness rewarded, and at the same time sense that it will be anything but. When one of the girls Vera has helped falls seriously ill, the forces of fate inexorably rise up against her.
By a cruel irony the family are celebrating the announcement of a pregnancy when the police call upon the Drake household, and Vera, to everyone's bafflement, is carted off to the station. The look of humble anguish that crumples Imelda Staunton's face is nearly too poignant to bear; in the film's final half-hour her performance practically grinds to a standstill.
Despite the sorrowful patience of the investigating officer (Peter Wight), Vera is absolutely paralysed by her arrest and, while she doesn't regard what she has done as a crime, she has no fight to offer. In court, her voice is so racked with sobs she can barely speak.
Highlighting the hypocrisy of the establishment that condemns her, Leigh inserts a subplot concerning Susan (Sally Hawkins), a young woman from a well-to-do family who's fallen pregnant after being raped. Her ordeal is bad enough, and the doctor who announces his price of 100 guineas ("in cash") for the abortion is a bit of a brute, but the point remains: this woman can pay for treatment in a private clinic without her parents knowing. Having money has got her out of trouble.
Leigh doesn't pour all his contempt on one class, however; his eye for nouveau aspiration focuses on Stan's sister-in-law Joyce (Heather Craney), a brittle upstart intent upon distancing herself from the downwardly mobile Drakes, and Ruth Sheen's grabby black-marketeer is pushed to the very edge of caricature. In Leigh's vision, class allows no one to escape the freaks' roll-call.
The film may draw comparison, in visual terms, with Terence Davies's autobiographical films of a Fifties' childhood, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. But whereas those films seemed to be the work of a brilliant curator, pickling his images in amber, Leigh brings to this period evocation a real human warmth, and a mighty relief it is after the tormenting miserabilism of his last, All Or Nothing.
Let's be clear, Vera Drake is scouringly grim at times, recalling an era many of us will feel fervently grateful not to have known, but it also presents a wonderfully tender portrait of proletarian togetherness. And in the performances of Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis it catches something quite elegiac about the virtues of charity and mercy.