About 30 minutes into Vera Drake, the gifted English writer/director Mike Leigh turns the corner of his drama with a scene that's as serene and simple as all that came before it, and yet as compelling as anything you're likely to see in a movie any time soon.
Up to then, Leigh's eponymous heroine (beautifully played by Imelda Staunton) seems like nothing more than the unflappable Earth Mother of London, circa 1950. Vera stops by to visit an ailing neighbor, invites a lonesome young man to join her family for a proper meal, looks in on her cranky mother, and stoops to polish the brass fireplace of her wealthy employer. At home, with her husband and two grown children -- a dowdy daughter, a jaunty son -- she fixes supper and spreads good cheer.
Then, on Friday night, she goes out to perform one more service. With the same gentle spirit and soothing voice that she brings to all of her charity work, she inserts a long thin rubber tube into a troubled girl, fills her pregnant uterus with soapy water, and tells her that in two days she'll be just fine.
Vera Drake is a true story -- so true, in fact, that right after we see the name of the film on screen, we see this: "Research -- Lucy Whitton." It's Leigh's way of assuring us he's about to tell the truth. In fact, the second hour of Vera Drake -- her arrest, interrogation and trial, along with her family's reaction -- is the lesser part of his film. It's during the first hour, where Leigh makes Vera's resolute compulsion to "help girls out" just a part of the fabric of everyday life, that his film feels most true.
Leigh's domestic stories, like Secrets & Lies and High Hopes, are breathtaking in their authenticity. He's a sensitive dramatist, and his work in Vera Drake is no exception. But once Vera gets caught, he insists on keeping his story intimate and claustrophobic, rather than giving Vera more context. The only nod to a wider world comes when the judge (Jim Broadbent) briefly plays to the press as he issues his sentence, and when Vera meets other women who are in prison for violating the same law, which Leigh reminds us numerous times was enacted in 1861 (his discreet way of suggesting that it needs to change because the times clearly haven't).
Still, this is good stuff, precisely because Leigh presents it without pretense or interference. Vera's "girls" are younger and older (one already has seven children), black and white, and mostly poor (in another political whisper, a rich girl goes to a pricey doctor for hers). There's no polemic here, and very little discussion about right and wrong -- another mistake, not because Leigh needs balance, but simply because in real life, you'd wonder what the neighbors think. His script gets maudlin only once or twice. Unfortunately, that's also about how often it tears you up.