I never got around to seeing this film when it first came out because of some slightly negative word-of-mouth amongst snooty critics, calling it a good effort but finding fault with Mike Leigh's portrait of a cheery middle-aged abortionist, deriding the character as a bit too "saintly". But then the Academy surprised everybody by bestowing Vera Drake with Oscar nominations for writing, direction, and leading actress, so five months after its first release, revived interest sent the film back into theatres. And I finally got around to seeing it.
I could kick myself for not having gone sooner, especially since I've always appreciated Leigh's work. Here, in his first "period picture" since his Victorian-era Topsy-Turvy, he expertly captures London in 1950 - fog, post-war rationing and all - as he depicts a working class family, presided over by the almost unbelievably kind Vera (Imelda Staunton). What makes Vera Drake so good is the cast: you'd swear you were watching a real loving, functioning family, not a bunch of actors. (Leigh is famous for developing his characters - and his dialogue - directly with his cast, over several months of improvisational workshops, in order for the roles to feel truly "lived in".) Through good times and bad, and unaware of their mother's then-illegal side job "helping girls out", they relate to each other as a true family would, frequently to highly moving effect. I grew to love these people.
Dick Pope's cinematography is so rich that the film feels like it was actually shot in 1950. Kudos as well to Eve Stewart for her evocative sets. The only real negative I have with the film is the score, which includes a most unwelcome chorus of atonal female voices. It's irritating, distracting, and, some might say, heavy-handed. (The voices seem to simultaneously suggest Vera's martyrdom, the howls of suffering women, even the cries of the unborn!) But the excellent cast makes the film worthwhile viewing no matter how you react to the score.
As for the touchy subject matter, Leigh characteristically keeps his story nonjudgmental, concerning itself only with the varied reactions of Vera's family. Though it can safely be said that, by showing the limited and often dangerous options that women - particularly working-class women - with unwanted pregnancies once had, Vera Drake is Leigh's argument for why abortion must be kept legal.