In ‘Vera Drake’, though, we find ourselves not in the familiar Leigh-landscape of contemporary London, but in the dreary, postwar capital of 1950. Vera (a career-topping performance from Imelda Staunton) is a dowdy, middle-aged bundle of a woman who performs a holy trinity of roles: loving wife, caring mother and dutiful cleaning lady to those better-off than her own happy brood, which consists of mechanic husband, Stan (Phil Davis), chirpy grown-up son, Sid (Daniel Mays), taciturn daughter, Ethel (Alex Kelly), and Ethel’s equally passive fiancé, Reg (Eddie Marsan).
Class and material conflict are never far off in a Mike Leigh film. Here, it’s Stan’s more successful brother (and employer) Frank (Adrian Scarborough) and his aspirational wife Joyce (Heather Craney) who provide an awkward contrast with the Drakes’ simpler lives. Scenes, too, of Vera scrubbing fireplaces on her hands and knees in the homes of the rich make a similar point about social division. The dialogue, the production design, the obvious (and, for Leigh, perennial) in-depth research also combine to ensure that the period setting is palpable and credible.
And Vera’s big secret? She illegally performs backstreet abortions, employing a sinister toolbox of rubber tubing, a bar of carbolic soap and a cheese grater to terminate pregnancies. She doesn’t ask for money: instead she acts through altruism and a desire to help young women.
So where do the film’s sympathies lie? There’s certainly some celebration – sometimes too much – of the Drakes as a happy family muddling through the austerity of postwar London. When it comes to abortion, Leigh makes clear the perils of Vera’s charitable pursuit. Ultimately, though, he has created a martyr to an unfair justice system and an antiquated law.