After rapturous receptions at film festivals from Venice to London, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake offers the perfect curtain-raiser to the new year, setting a high water mark for subsequent contenders for best film of 2005. Set in London in 1950, the story follows the day-to-day life of its eponymous heroine (the first to command a titular credit in one of Leigh's films): a wife, mother and cleaning lady who secretly performs illegal abortions - an act of charity for which she is branded a criminal.
While those of more privileged means may acquire safe terminations at the cost of a hundred guineas, Vera takes no money from the women whom she believes she is "helping" for purely practical and entirely altruistic reasons. Yet when one of Vera's "clients" ends up in hospital suffering the predictable consequences of backstreet medicine, Vera is arrested and ex-posed, to the shock and bewilderment of her unsuspecting family.
Having proved himself a dab hand at the economic recreation of period detail in Topsy-Turvy, Leigh once again conjures an extremely broad canvas from apparently limited resources. Combining the subtle political awareness of TV productions like Four Days in July with the familial intimacy of such celebrated cinematic charmers as High Hopes or Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake draws its audience into the centre of a complex social conundrum through the evocation of simple human emotions.
Despite the historical milieu, the issues the film raises are utterly contemporary, particularly in light of the recent rise of the religious right and its ongoing challenges to hard-won women's rights. From a polemical perspective, it would be hard to imagine anyone watching Vera Drake without a growing sense that a society which drives women to seek backstreet abortions is seriously at fault. Vera is painted in believably sympathetic strokes, driven by a desire to aid women trapped in insufferable circumstances of which she seems to have very personal experience. Yet the real triumph of Leigh's admirably even-handed drama is that it never becomes preachy, leaving the audience to reach their own conclusions about the increasingly tragic events that threaten to turn Vera from a life-saver into an accidental killer.
The result is an insightful masterpiece that manages to negotiate the extreme reactions provoked by its subject matter without alienating even those viewers of a broadly "pro-life" persuasion. Significantly, Vera Drake played in the US last year in the midst of an increasingly divisive election debate about abortion; yet it proved to be a rare example of a politically liberal movie that didn't simply play to the choir.
Central to this universal appeal is a brace of breathtakingly engaging performances from an ensemble cast that deserves a collective standing ovation. Although Imelda Staunton has been rightly feted for her Oscar-tipped leading role, it is those around her who make Vera's situation comprehensible to all comers. From Daniel Mays's fidgety son, who expresses adolescent outrage at his mother's actions, to Phil Davis's stoical husband, whose unwavering support for his wife reveals a previously hidden voice of authority, the "supporting" players offer a thoroughly convincing kaleidoscope of human responses. Plaudits go in particular to Eddie Marsan as the outsider brought into the bosom of Vera's family, whose quiet declaration that "this is the best Christ-mas I ever had" encapsulates the film's ultimate message about the down-to-earth decency of ordinary folk caught in extraordinary circumstances.
And therein, perhaps, lies the true magic of Vera Drake. Despite its uncomfortable subject matter and apparently tragic narrative, the film remains a vibrant and (crucially) loving celebration of the character and quirks of its key players. Having been accused in the past of a comic misanthropy that occasionally descended into caricature, Leigh has matured into a film-maker who seems rewardingly unembarrassed by the possibility of basic human goodness. In this respect, Vera Drake may be seen as the fulfilment of a promise evident in Leigh's thoroughly underrated previous feature All or Nothing, a box-office flop that drew criticism for daring to have a tentative "happy ending". While that may not be a phrase that could accurately be applied to Vera Drake, a sanguine sense of family unity pervades the film's harrowing third act, turning a potential catastrophe into something of a personal triumph.
Three cheers, too, for cinematographer Dick Pope, who creates a minor miracle with Super 16 film stock to produce a handsomely intimate portrait of British family life that radiates warmth, integrity and compositional beauty. Having already achieved international critical acclaim, Vera Drake now deserves the widest possible audience in the UK, where it should rightly become one of our most popular home-grown hits.