Working-class heroine 

British director Mike Leigh offers moving, personal work in Vera Drake

British director Mike Leigh offers moving, personal work in Vera Drake

Vera Drake checks in on an ailing friend and cares for her bedridden mother between housecleaning appointments. Her husband Stan chats with his brother while fixing a car. The couple gather with their outgoing son Sid and reserved daughter Ethel at the family dinner table for a convivial meal, making room for Reg, a bachelor from a neighboring flat. Later, Vera and Stan enjoy a movie, Sid joins his mates for dancing and pints, and Ethel and Reg begin a furtive romance. And then Vera visits a stranger's home, puts on a kettle and unpacks her bag, as she gets ready to perform an abortion. Titled after its heroine, Mike Leigh's latest feature moves with a crisp, uncluttered efficiency, layering incident on incident to create a fully realized world—warm, solid and inviting, but undercut with a note of dread.

Set in postwar London and suffused in childhood memory, the film documents a can-do era informed by recently overcome trials and atrocities. A product of her environment, Vera approaches each task with indefatigable good cheer and a sometimes unsettling matter-of-factness; she treats boiling water for tea and "helping girls out" as essentially equivalent acts. Her distinctive walk, a determined shuffle, mirrors the film's narrative in its quiet purposefulness. And though the Drake home is cramped and worn, their lodgings pulse with infectious life. (Leigh's period detail is exquisite.) At times, the film practically glows.

When one of Vera's charges is inevitably rushed to the hospital following complications, the ensuing police investigation literally upends this idyllic domestic tableau, interrupting an engagement celebration for Ethel and Reg. The narrative's jaunty, episodic pace is quickly subsumed in linear, unblinking procedural; Vera's expressive visage, gradually melting from "stiff upper lip" to grim resignation, replaces her gait as the film's leitmotif. It's a tribute to Leigh's much documented rehearsal process that the audience's very real emotional response is rooted in our relation to the Drake family, our recognition of their palpable loss.

Dedicated to the director's parents, a doctor and midwife, Vera Drake is a decidedly personal film. Abortion has haunted the periphery of his prior works, but Leigh's current effort is neither didactic nor reactionary; instead, its politics are embedded in situation, character and story. And though in true Dickensian fashion his narrative is populated with colorful "villains," the director's greatest frustration and contempt are reserved for a faceless, alienating legal system—one built squarely on class inequity. By design, Vera Drake is not as expansive as Leigh's masterwork Topsy-Turvy, and its compact structure may register as overly pat, but the film is nonetheless deeply humane and emotionally absorbing. Like Vera herself, it is "good as gold."

Vera Drake opens Nov. 5 at Green Hills.

—Scott Manzler

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