In Britain of the early 1950s, middle-aged Vera Drake lives in a small flat with her husband Stan (Phil Davis), a mechanic who works for his brother Frank (Adrian Scarborough), and her two grown up children, outgoing tailor Sid (Daniel Mays) and the shy Ethel (Alex Kelly). Vera helps to make ends meet as a cleaning lady, but she has, as is often pointed out by those who know her, a heart of gold and is always willing to provide assistance to those who need it. Today, for instance, she invited the lonely Reg (Eddie Marsan) to dinner because he lived on his own and didn't get out much, although she may have spotted a kindred spirit for her daughter. The evening goes well, and Reg is invited back any time he wants, but this isn't the only way Vera helps the disadvantaged. Vera is an illegal abortionist.
Director Mike Leigh receives a writer's credit on this film, but as with his previous work, he acted as a guiding hand to his actors and the "script" was entirely improvised. And as usual, this means a fairly straightforward story that is made richer by the film's performances and emotional impact, especially when you know that hardly any of the main cast knew that the film concerned itself with abortion at a time when such a practice was extremely hard to come by for women "in trouble". As a parallel narrative, the virginal daughter of one of the high society ladies Vera works for is raped and needs a termination, and we follow her in a small number of scenes as she goes through official channels - she's able to afford the high financial price, of course.
For those who can't, there's Vera who makes home visits to her clients with her kit, her kindly style putting them at ease as if this were a perfectly simple operation and nothing to be ashamed of; yet most of them are ashamed, thanks to a society that puts the blame on their situation firmly on their own heads, the men who impregnated them getting away without a guilty conscience. Leigh is on the side of the women all the way, even when yet another apparently simple procedure goes wrong and it's Vera fault. In the meantime, we watch an exquisitely fashioned world of the past (all the more impressive on such a tiny budget), with everyone in Vera's circle of family getting their time to build their personalities in our eyes, for this is as much a family crisis melodrama as it is an issue film.
However, as is often with Leigh's work the accusation of a patronising tone can be levelled as there's not one character we cannot look down on from a position of being more aware than they are, whether it's Vera's family who are horrified by the police arriving at their door halfway through a celebratory get-together, or Vera herself who seems utterly naive. She's built up as a martyr turned saint, as we find out she doesn't even ask for money and is the victim of her callous friend Lily (Ruth Sheen) who takes as much cash as she can for the abortions without telling Vera. Fortunately the cast, not one hitting a wrong note from the minor roles upwards, keep the misery authentic, yet there's something sadistic about the way the simple folk are put through the wringer for a full two hours of screen time. The film will make you thankful that Britain's attitude to abortion is more enlightened these days, showing that it's not a decision made lightly for the women involved, but that's about all you get out of it unless you like to wallow in depression. Music by Andrew Dickson.