Every once in a while, life deals you an unexpected cruelty like having to review Vera Drake at a moment when Roe v. Wade looks doomed to fall under the jackboot heels of moralistic Republicans and obsequious Democrats alike. The prognosis wasn't quite so dire, just critical, back in early November, when this openhanded yet unsparing abortion drama was originally scheduled to open in metro Orlando. After an 11th-hour delay which I'm sure had nothing to do with election season the picture is finally scheduled to reach us next weekend. To its innate virtues, then, we can add an unintentional overlay of nostalgia for the comparatively hopeful days of 2004, when the future of American reproductive rights was as indeterminate as the moral and ethical ambiguities this film conjures to stunning effect.
Another keenly observed slice of life from writer/director Mike Leigh (All or Nothing, Secrets & Lies), Vera Drake is set in the London of 1950, where the scars of wartime have yet to heal but good neighborliness still manages to thrive. It's the guiding attitude of title heroine Vera (Imelda Staunton), a sweet-natured housekeeper who treats her employers with the same radiant kindness she shows to her husband (Phil Davis) and grown children (Alex Kelly, Daniel Mays). Whether making the rounds of the households she tidies up so cheerily or playing matchmaker for a shy neighbor (Eddie Marsan), Vera is a paragon of chummy caring.
She's also an unlicensed abortionist who goes from home to home helping distraught young girls terminate their pregnancies. Vera does this out of simple concern; as far as she knows, she's performing the service unpaid, as a charitable expression of sisterly solidarity. (The money that's changing hands is actually going entirely to an opportunistic broker, played with capitalist cool by All or Nothing's Ruth Sheen.) Vera's naiveté extends to her very methods: The procedure she follows to get the girls to "flush out" their fetal matter is, unbeknownst to her, highly unreliable and dangerous. It's also a violation of Britain's Offenses Against a Person Act of 1861, portending a bitter reckoning with detectives who would love to see her clandestine operation shut down for good.
This being a Leigh film, the ensemble acting is without a blemish. And the fine, affecting work performed by Staunton and company runs in lockstep with the almost minimalist script, which consistently shrinks from soapbox sermonizing. Leigh knows that life's deepest crises can put even the most interesting folks at a loss for words; watching Vera come to terms, almost silently, with who she is and what she's been doing earns our sympathies infinitely more effectively than would any glib, Oscar-baiting statement of intent. As her matronly composure is viciously rent asunder by her dawning awareness of crime and punishment, we can't help but embrace her as family.
A relative, naturally, is a hard person to judge, and so does Vera Drake resist categorization. Right-to-lifers will likely consider the film proof of the horror of abortion in general, while the pro-choice contingent will perceive a compelling argument for keeping the procedure legal and safe. The movie's climax almost goes too far in preserving that ambiguity, giving us only a hint of the long-term effects Vera's activities will have on her loved ones and her outlook. Leigh's universe is less finite than ours, and his characters have time to consider their options. Out here in the real world, that time is running out.