The scripts to Mike Leigh's films are credited to him alone, but that doesn't explain the collaborative process that brings them to life. With little more than a bare-bones scenario for a starting point, Leigh works closely with his actors, prompting them to create full character histories, participate in scrupulous research, and improvise the dialogue that eventually fills out the page. What makes Leigh's films special are the minor details: the lived-in domestic spaces, how people go about their jobs, the past experiences that register in their demeanor, their dress, and their manner of speaking. Before the drama ever intrudes on his characters' lives, Leigh and his cast first establish their world with an almost three-dimensional authenticity.
Leigh's only period piece apart from 1999's glorious Gilbert & Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake concerns a housekeeper who secretly moonlights as an abortionist in post-war Britain, nearly two decades before the procedure was legalized. Yet for the first hour, abortion only figures into her routines proportionally; it's smoothly and discreetly integrated into her other duties as a working-class laborer and homemaker. Played in a wrenching performance by Imelda Staunton, this self-effacing middle-aged woman flinches at the word "abortion"—she prefers to call it "helping girls out," and she does so in a quiet, compassionate manner that's consistent with all of her affairs. Though Leigh's sympathies are obvious, Vera Drake doesn't go through the usual docudrama paces of other issue movies, which vigorously stoke the conflict on both sides of the public debate. Instead, it focuses intently on Staunton and her family, who stand to lose the modest yet bracingly warm and loving dynamic that sustains their lives.
Because Leigh places such primacy on family, much of Vera Drake involves waiting for the other shoe to drop, when the law finally catches up to Staunton and her husband (Phil Davis), and their grown children are suddenly confronted by her activities. When that finally happens—after complications land one of her patients in the hospital and police swiftly track Staunton down—the film registers the full gravity of their domestic tragedy, via scenes that ripple with conflicting feelings of anger, betrayal, tenderness, and devotion. Family has always been at the center of Leigh's work, most recently in melodramas such as Secrets & Lies and All Or Nothing, so it makes sense that abortion, a choice that involves family planning, should finally come up as a subject. The issue may be polarizing, but Vera Drake resonates with such seriousness and truth that it transcends the narrow limitations of polemic.