Bustling around drizzly, post-WWII London with a happy, doughy face and gleaming eyes, Vera (Imelda Staunton) works as a floor-scrubber for the wealthy, humming to herself and calling everyone "dear."
She lives in a graying flat with her auto mechanic husband (Phil Davis) and her grown son (Daniel Mays) and daughter (Alex Kelly). When she subtly plays matchmaker for her shy, homely daughter by inviting a poor, reserved bachelor and war veteran (Eddie Marsan) over for some real food, their awkward walk together in a park is one of this movie's oddest delights.
For Vera, no problem is ever so great that a nice cup of tea can't solve it; she often visits ailing neighbors and occasionally helps expectant girls by performing homespun abortions. When one of these patients almost dies, Vera is arrested and tried for her "crime."
Writer/director Mike Leigh shapes the superb "Vera Drake" as a repressed companion in working-class strife to his "All or Nothing," establishing a vivid place and time but offering little in the way of comfort or comment. The film's bizarre structure -- starting with tons of exposition and character development, then spiraling into a courtroom drama -- magically works through the director's even-keeled touch.
He also contrasts Vera's story with that of a well-heeled girl (Sally Hawkins) who goes through proper channels for her abortion and suffers from crushing, psychological shame.
But as with David Thewlis in Leigh's "Naked," Brenda Blethyn in his "Secrets and Lies," the centerpiece performance drives the film. Staunton is a revelation throughout, but never more so than when she radiates with glazed, dewy shock as she teeters into the film's wrenching post-verdict final scene.