Mike Leigh’s films habitually focus on the misery of downtrodden Brits struggling to cope with unfavorable socio-economic situations, and the director’s latest dreary drama, Vera Drake, may be his finest work in years. Vera (Imelda Staunton) is a cheery “domestic” who cleans wealthy homes for a living and, on the side and for no pay, performs abortions for young women-in-need. An altruistic mother, wife and friend, her kindness extends to everyone she meets – including lonely Reg (Eddie Marsan), who she invites into her home and, eventually, her family after he gets engaged to Vera’s frumpy daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) – and thus when her secret profession is revealed, a familial crisis ensues. Leigh’s narrative, split into two equal halves, can be overly schematic, and his patient pacing can sometimes be frustratingly lethargic, yet the director brilliantly evokes the complexity of the abortion issue without passing judgment or resorting to didacticism. Vera’s benevolence is offset by the danger her deeds pose for her clients and the price her family must pay for her behavior, and Vera Drake makes clear that what’s at stake isn’t simply the fate of one kindhearted woman but, rather, society’s ability to delineate between crimes of hate and acts of compassion. Leigh brings his upsetting narrative to authentic life thanks in large part to his cast’s naturalism, but it is ultimately Staunton’s indelible performance as Vera – especially during a prolonged, heartbreaking close-up when she realizes why the cops have interrupted her daughter’s engagement party – that puts a tender human face on this explosive subject.