Vera Drake (2004)
Vera Drake opens as a cheerful and vivid rendition of a warm and friendly post-war London and finishes as an incisive and lingering portrait of the tragedy of a woman and her family. The pacing and humour in Mike Leigh's direction set this story alight and builds a solid foundation for this sombre, honest portrait of a woman helping young, pregnant girls with performing abortion. Explicitly, this is a simple story about an issue that today is (in most parts of the world) socially accepted, but Mike Leigh wants to make us see the gravity of this matter in the light of the time they were performed. That is exactly why he dwells at Vera's arrest and lets his camera explore (and explore) Imelda Staunton's face. And although it borders on what is healthy for her performance, his intense and persistent approach enhances the story's strength if not the progression of the film.
Leigh gives a lot of the responsibility to the actors. Not only Staunton's powerhouse performance (see Staunton on Oscar-night and you won't recognize her), but also from the entire supporting cast. Daniel Mays (as the son, Sid) and Philip Davis (as the husband) are particularly impressive, as they help make the film a remarkably insightful character study. The key is the amount of time Leigh uses to establish our relationship with them, and the spirit with which they are presented. In doing so, he creates a backbone for the rather demanding final act of the film where we are put to the test along with our protagonist. Ultimately, Vera Drake is not a film about laws or the rights or wrongs of abortion. It is a film about people who are in one way or another affected by these things. It's powerful and direct, but never political or categorical.