THERE'S AN ANGEL quietly at work in a corner of postwar London. Her name is Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton). A devoted wife, mother and neighbor, she seems to find time for everybody. She cleans houses for the leisured class but still manages to take care of an elderly couple, make dinner for the family and spread around a little cheer. When we meet her, she's inviting the moon-faced neighbor, Reg, around for tea. He'd be a wonderful match for her daughter, Ethel, after all.
She's the salt of the earth, this Vera. But in the moving "Vera Drake," she is about to learn that no good deed goes unpunished, especially in the working classes.
Written and directed by Mike Leigh, the British filmmaker who made "Secrets & Lies" and "Topsy-Turvy," "Vera Drake" is a carefully calibrated parable that quietly sneaks into your heart and prods it sharply.
You're pulled into a period when British families huddled in the parlor for tea and conversation, not television. When they went out to the dance halls or "the flicks" for Saturday night laughs. And when a young girl who found herself in "a spot of trouble" would do well to be rich. Daughters of the leisured classes can solve such problems with a discreet visit to a doctor. But poorer girls, they can only hope for someone as gentle and safe as Vera.
Vera lives with her devoted husband, Stan (Phil Davis), who's a mechanic at his brother's auto shop. Her son, Sid (Daniel Mays), is a genial lad who loves going out, and a tailor trainee who knows how to make his clients feel good about their choices. Her daughter, Ethel, may seem like a meek stay-at-home, but she's got a quietly intense set of feelings. They are all very much alive and there for one another. And yet, no one knows that Vera has been helping those troubled women for 20 years.
The movie, which won the top Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, and an acting prize for Staunton, is astringently clear and bold about its mission. As with Leigh's other work, it's bereft of sentimentality or false emotion. But that doesn't mean "Vera Drake" doesn't redound with feeling. Few movies have evoked the happiness of a good, strong family as genuinely as this one. And this affecting atmosphere makes the eventual outcome resonate with great power.
Leigh, a quiet puppet master who works closely with his actors over weeks of improvised rehearsal before settling on the final "script," once again shows the benefit of his method. The performances are -- dare I say? -- British-perfect, delivered with effortless, stage-trained crispness. And it has become a special pleasure over the years to watch Leigh's troupe of players figure differently each time. Davis, who was a sweet leather-jacketed courier in Leigh's 1988 "High Hopes," is a quiet wonder as the dutiful, clearheaded Stan, who must deal with shocking revelations. And Ruth Sheen, who played Davis's partner in "High Hopes," returns memorably here as Lily, a black-market hustler who supplies tea and nylons; she also finagles illicit procedures for a small fee. Jim Broadbent, a Leigh stalwart who has been everything from touching to riotously funny, makes a minor appearance as a judge. But he's a significant part of the collaborative experience. However, the standout is Staunton, actually a Leigh newcomer. As Vera, she's the heart and guts of this drama. And you cannot accompany her on this journey without feeling the intense highs and lows of her oddly fated life.
VERA DRAKE (R, 120 minutes) -- Contains intense thematic material. Area theaters.