Leigh is at the peak of his powers with morally complex drama that stands alongside his best work. Story of a good Samaritan sidelining as a humane abortionist in post-WWII London is performed by a peerless cast, led by a revelatory Imelda Staunton. Probable awards season attention should secure a prime position among prestige end-of-year specialty releases.

Mike Leigh is at the peak of his powers with “Vera Drake,” a compassionate, morally complex drama that stands easily alongside his best work, “Secrets & Lies” and “Topsy-Turvy,” but may even surpass those films in showcasing the rich yield of the director’s signature extended rehearsal process. Impeccably designed, vividly inhabited story of a neighborhood good Samaritan secretly sidelining as a humane abortionist in post-WWII London is performed by a peerless cast studded with Leigh repertory players and led by a revelatory turn from Imelda Staunton. Probable awards season attention should secure a prime position among prestige end-of-year specialty releases.

Premiering in Venice and then screening at the New York Film Festival, pic bows Oct. 10 Stateside through Fine Line and in January in the U.K. through Momentum. Fest-goers this fall surely will be perplexed by Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux’s decision to deny an invitation earlier this year to such a resoundingly accomplished work.

While the drama is emotionally harrowing it’s also riveting, profoundly affecting and observed with a real generosity of spirit. The distancing moroseness of Leigh’s last film, “All or Nothing,” is entirely absent, as is the misanthropic streak and baroque dialogue that made “Naked” an acquired taste.

The director’s customary interest in the class divide again comes into focus, posing an initial threat of overly simplistic lines being drawn to separate the poor and noble-hearted from the rich and insensitive. But that split instead serves via incidental information to show the vastly different alternatives available to young women “in trouble.”

The title perhaps intentionally calls to mind vintage melodramas like “Harriet Craig” or “Mildred Pierce,” and, while this is an entirely different animal rooted in classic British kitchen-sink realism, it’s fitting that the film should take its name from the physically unprepossessing yet tragically heroic protagonist who drives its every scene.

A middle-aged woman of modest means but relentless good cheer, Vera (Staunton) helps out neighbors and stops in on her elderly mother while rushing between housecleaning jobs and tirelessly tending to her family. The clanconsists of her loving mechanic husband Stan (Phil Davis), their jolly tailor son Sid (Daniel Mays) and mousy factory worker daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly).

Concerned that he’s not looking after himself, Vera invites lonely war veteran road worker Reg (Eddie Marsan) to dinner, gently fostering his shy romance with Ethel. Leigh’s affection for these humble, unpretentious characters is evident in the infectious warmth with which he etches the genuinely happy family unit.

The film takes on darker shadings when Vera is first seen inducing a miscarriage, adopting a matter-of-fact yet motherly manner throughout the procedure. Slowly, a sense of the illicit operation and of the poverty and hardship common to Vera’s environment becomes clear, as shetrundles off to addresses in low-rent neighborhoods supplied to her by Lily (Ruth Sheen), a judgmental woman who sells black-market household goods on the side.

At the same time, the film tracks the vicissitudes of Susan (Sally Hawkins), the daughter of one of Vera’s well-heeled employers , who becomes pregnant after being date-raped and quietly checks into a clinic to have the problem dealt with in relative comfort.

When complications ensue from one of Vera’s interventions, the police descend on her home during a gathering to celebrate Reg and Ethel’s engagement. A series of painfully wrenching scenes showVera’s family had no knowledge of her activities, just as she was unaware of Lily’s financial gain from the abortions. Leigh illustrates there are different ways of looking at every moral question, as evidenced by Vera’s view of her unremunerated commissions as simply “helping young girls out when they can’t manage.”

Transitioning fluidly from the gentle humor of the opening stretch into more melancholy, emotionally resonant territory, Leigh chronicles Vera’s ordeal through her arrest and trial. She is less concerned with her own welfare than with the devastation wreaked on family members, the least fazed of which is Reg. His miserable past, like Vera’s own experiences that led to her performing the illegal operations, are only briefly hinted at in a screenplay that’s a marvel of eloquent spareness.

Coaxing the pathos out of the situation in steadily incremental degrees, Leigh’s exacting, superbly controlled direction is matched by sterling work from the entire cast, which elevates the art of ensemble playing to new heights.

Staunton clearly dominates in a tightly contained, focused performance that sees her transformed by her fate from a sunny, energetic dynamo to a woman rendered suddenly frail and uncertain in her movements. Regardless of an audience’s position on abortion, it’s hard to imagine anyone being unmoved by this stunningly heartfelt characterization of a woman with endless reserves of sympathy and solicitude. Like the comparable divulgation scene between Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste in “Secrets & Lies,” Vera’s confession to Stan of why she’s been arrested illustrates Leigh’s rare skill at sustaining intensity through intimate emotional confrontations.

Difficult as it is to single out other actors in such a uniformly strong field, Davis brings a rich humanity to Vera’s determinedly optimistic husband, Mays deftly handles the conflicting emotions of her son, Kelly finds the sweet, giving side behind Ethel’s frumpy appearance and Heather Craney nails a particular breed of suburban materialist climber in Vera’s aloof sister-in-law. Among the many Leigh regulars on hand, Jim Broadbent turns up as a stern magistrate, Allan Corduner injects humor into a dry yet benign psychiatrist, Sheen incisively conveys Lily’s uncharitablenature and Lesley Manville is a hoot as an unsympathetic middle-class matron.

Leigh’s second excursion into a period setting after “Topsy-Turvy,” the film benefits from a deeply rooted sense of time and place — in the narrow back streets, dingy living quarters and dusty colors of Eve Stewart’s meticulous production design and in the muted, wintry tones of Dick Pope’s poised, detached camerawork. Andrew Dickson’s sonorous string score adds greatly to the emotional texture.

Vera Drake

U.K.-France

Production

A Fine Line Features (U.S.)/Momentum Pictures (U.K.) release of an Alain Sarde, U.K. Film Council presentation in association with Inside Track of a Thin Man Films, Les Films Alain Sarde production for Inside Track. (International sales: StudioCanal, France.) Produced by Simon Channing Williams, Alain Sarde. Executive producers, Gail Egan, Robert Jones, Duncan Reid. Co-producer, Georgina Lowe. Directed, written by Mike Leigh.

Crew

Camera (color), Dick Pope; editor, Jim Clark; music, Andrew Dickson; production designer, Eve Stewart; art directors, Ed Walsh, Andrew Grant; set decorator, John Bush; costume designer, Jacqueline Durran; sound (Dolby Digital), Tim Fraser; assistant director, Josh Robertson; casting, Nina Gold. Reviewed at Disney screening room, New York, June 30, 2004. (In Venice Film Festival -- competing; also in New York Film Festival.) Running time: 125 MIN.

With

Vera Drake - Imelda Staunton Stan - Phil Davis Det. Inspector Webster - Peter Wright Frank - Adrian Scarborough Joyce - Heather Craney Sid - Daniel Mays Ethel - Alex Kelly Susan - Sally Hawkins Reg - Eddie Marsan Lily - Ruth Sheen WPC Best - Helen Coker
With: Martin Savage, Sinead Matthews, Allan Corduner, Lesley Sharp, Jim Broadbent, Fenella Woolgar, Lesley Manville, Sandra Voe, Liz White, Elizabeth Berrington, Emma Amos.

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