Set in 1950 London, Vera Drake is the story of a cleaning lady who endeavors in sundry ways to make life better for those around her. Played with heartbreaking pluck by Academy Award nominee Imelda Staunton, Vera scrubs the floors and polishes the brass in the houses of rich people who barely notice her presence. But she is never offended and labors over the possessions of her employers with the care she would devote to something of her own. On the way home from work, she visits with her ailing mother and with others in her neighborhood who are sick or incapacitated. She hasn't much to offer other than a concerned hand on a fevered brow and a standing offer to make a pot of tea. But in her readiness to help, she is an angel in a cleaning smock.
In her own tiny flat, Vera cleans and cooks for her adoring husband Stan (Philip Davis) and her grown children, chirpy Sid (Daniel Mays) and painfully shy Ethel (Alex Kelly). The lonely neighborhood bachelor Reg (Eddie Marsan) is a frequent guest at her table, and it is clear that Vera hopes propinquity may spark romance between Reg and Ethel. The Drakes are a conventional working-class family of their time. They are polite to their "betters" and take pleasure in the company of their friends, in a trip to the movies or an outing to a pub. They express no resentment of their station in life.
It would therefore seem shocking that Vera is an abortionist, a felon continually committing acts that could land her in prison. But Vera's visits to the bedrooms of women with unwanted pregnancies are completely consistent with every other aspect of her life. She has few skills, but she knows how to mix shavings of lye soap into a saline solution and apply it in a way that will cause a miscarriage. When asked, she performs this service with characteristic gentleness. She is not and never expects to be paid. Vera makes no distinction between visits to terminate a pregnancy and visits to make chicken soup for someone in bed with the flu. She is available to do what she can for those who cannot help themselves.
In his unique method of devising a movie script, Leigh imagines a situation and a set of characters but casts his film before he writes. Then in workshops that last for weeks, he asks his actors to improvise dialogue and reactions. In essence, he directs his players to become their characters and thereby help him reveal the way those characters will manifest themselves. Worked and reworked, the improvisations provide the raw material for the scenes that ultimately make up the movie. In the end, Leigh's characters are so fully realized, this film would be memorable as a depiction of interesting human beings in a certain place at a certain time even if its events didn't take a conventional dramatic turn. And the turn it takes is all the more wrenching because of the way we feel the impact on those it affects.
Eventually, Vera's abortionist activities are discovered by authorities who arrest her and put her on trial. But along the way Leigh has shown us what happens when the daughter of a rich family gets pregnant out of wedlock. For a fee of 150 pounds, the rich girl can buy a psychiatrist's report that allows her to have an abortion legally. So it's not that British society really prohibits abortions; it just prohibits them for poor women who have to rely on Vera Drake's services for free. A less skilled and humane director would make monsters of the police who arrest, interrogate and incarcerate Vera. But Leigh determines to highlight the core of human decency even in those who serve a system that is inherently unfair. In the end, Leigh isn't extensively interested here in the moral issues of abortion, but as always, he is interested in the people caught up in a system that provides different rules for the rich than those less flexible ones which govern the poor.