A Gift of Tea and Sympathy

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Vera Drake is a cheerful, frumpy little lady bustling about 1950s London, humming happily to herself. She visits the sick. She chats up the lonely. She dispenses cups of tea. And from time to time she helps young women who have got themselves "in trouble." That ugly word, abortion, never crosses her lips. And she never takes money for her illegal services.

Her ordinary, slightly fractious lower-middle-class family knows nothing about her secret life, which she has pursued for some 20 years, until one day when a patient of hers nearly dies after submitting to her "procedure" and she finds herself in the law's clutches. It is as gentle as it can be, considering her saintly demeanor. But it is also implacable in its need to punish her — indeed, to crush her spirit.

This is, to put it mildly, unlikely material from which to fashion a near great movie. But writer-director Mike Leigh's Vera Drake is just such a film. He's famously a realist (Life Is Sweet, Naked, Secrets & Lies) and never more so than in this film. He simply recounts the story with unblinking objectivity. The almost comic cluelessness of Vera's family, the phlegmatic spirit of the policemen processing her case, the attitudes of her patients, ranging from the hysterical to the cool — they are all there. Yet there's nothing forced or movieish in Leigh's treatment.

This very patient film reaches out and unshakably grips us, not least because of Imelda Staunton's heartbreaking performance as the simple-souled Vera but also because Leigh neither pleads nor prosecutes her case. It includes class issues — rich girls don't need Vera — and the obvious moral one, but they are stated by implication, never by declaration. The humanity of these puzzled little people in their claustrophobic world, drowning melodrama in teacups and evasions, is, in the end, shattering.