The heroine of Mike Leigh's wonderfully subtle and relentlessly harrowing new film is a cheerful, compactly built middle-aged woman who spends her waking hours in perpetual motion. Indeed, the first thing one might notice about Vera Drake is her gait. She seems to have arrived, likely early in life, at the simplest and most reliable method of moving forward while transferring weight from one leg to the other. Compared with the way most people propel themselves about the world, this is a remarkable accomplishment. We can sense in her walk a modest pride in her own purposefulness and efficiency. The opening and penultimate sequences in Vera Drake show Vera walking. In the difference between the way she moves at the beginning and at the end of the film lies the story.

Vera Drake is something of a flip side to Leigh's Naked. These are the only films among his 17 features and TV dramas in which Leigh focuses the narrative on a single character. (Jim Broadbent's performance may dominate Topsy-Turvy but the film is about the creative collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan.) Naked's Johnny is a dark spirit who wreaks destruction on himself and anyone who gives him an opening, while the sunny Vera is regarded as “good as gold” by just about everyone who knows her. But Vera, no less than Johnny, lives according to an ethical code that places her outside the law and the established social order. And both characters, therefore, cause those around them, in varying degrees, to question their own relation to societal rules they've taken for granted.

The film is set in London in 1950, when the experience of the war and the blitz still dominated the collective consciousness. Vera (Imelda Staunton) lives with her husband, Stan (Phil Davis), and their two adult children, Sid (Daniel Mays) and Ethel (Alex Kelly), in a cramped flat in a dingy working-class neighborhood. Everyone in the family has a full-time job. Stan works in his brother's car-repair shop, Sid in a men's clothing store, Ethel on an assembly line in a lightbulb factory. Vera cleans the houses of several upper-middle-class families; at home, too, she's the cook and cleaner-upper. In between her paid domestic service and her homemaking duties, she finds five minutes here and there to visit sick friends and relatives, offering a cuppa, a biscuit, and an encouraging word. Her happiness—this is a woman who sings while she works in her kitchen—is contagious, although it might strike one that her generosity and her strict budgeting of her time are somewhat at odds. Vera manages to do a great deal for others by refusing to imagine situations that might be too much for her to cope with. It's the kind of dissociation that's characteristic of saints or borderline schizophrenics. That we are able to discern so much about a character from about 25 minutes of exposition, composed simply of fragments of daily life—no high drama, no overt statements of purpose or desire—has to do with the meticulous attention paid by the director and his leading actress to rhythms, textures, and small details of behavior. Staunton, who's working here with Leigh for the first time, is best known to American audiences as the voice of Bunty, the adorable hen, in Chicken Run and as the nurse in Shakespeare in Love.

At the end of what we might call the film's first act, Vera pays a visit to a nervous young woman, and although she hums a tune while putting the kettle on, we have a sinking feeling that the water she's heating is not for tea. Among the services Vera performs, free of charge, is one she refers to as “helping girls out.” Vera is an abortionist at a time when abortion is illegal in England. During the course of the film, she performs four abortions. Leigh depicts the procedures in exacting detail, but also with great discretion, as though Chardin had painted the implements Vera uses-a syringe, rubber tubing, a grater, a bar of soap, and a basin of water-arranged on a bed, in a still life.

In terms of the expressive elements he employs, Leigh treats the abortion scenes just as he treats every other scene in the film, in part because Vera doesn't view what she does as in any way out of the ordinary. If a mother of six with an abusive husband knows she won't be able to feed yet another child, or a young black woman with no family is terrified of having a baby on her own, Vera is there to help. But we in the audience are aware of what Vera refuses to consider, and it makes us horribly anxious. Sooner or later, one of these abortions will have a bad outcome. A woman will get sick or die, and the police will find out about Vera. We watch the happy family gatherings and the courtship of tongue-tied Ethel by a similarly shy Reg (Eddie Marsan)—what an endearing couple they make—dreading what's to come.

For Leigh, the starting point of Vera Drake was, without question, the issue of abortion. He dedicated the film to his parents, “a doctor and a midwife,” and, in an interview, he told me that because his parents' practice was largely in a working-class neighborhood, he was aware, since childhood, of women who performed illegal abortions. In previous films, Leigh wove abortion into the fabric of sexuality in marriage and out of wedlock. But it is so central to Vera Drake that Leigh even shows us, as a counterpoint to Vera and the women she “helps out,” the options that were available to wealthy women for terminating unwanted pregnancies. When Susan (Sally Hawkins), the daughter of one of the families Vera works for, discovers that she's pregnant as the result of being date-raped, a friend gives her the name of a doctor, who, for a hefty fee, arranges for a psychiatrist to certify that she is emotionally unstable. Thus she is allowed a legal abortion in a clinic that looks like a college dorm.

A newcomer to Leigh's films, veteran editor Jim Clark points up the difference money makes to women in need of abortions without allowing the film to become overly didactic. Clark's clipped and straightforward editing may be the primary reason that Vera Drake seems slightly more austere and heady than Leigh's other films. Clark unfailingly cuts at the precise moment that we have discovered everything we need to know in a shot, but a beat or two before we might have expected it to end. As a result, the film sidesteps melodrama at every turn, taking a very different approach to its subject than Claude Chabrol's powerful-in-its-own-right The Story of Women (88). Members of Leigh's regular production team—cinematographer Dick Pope, production designer Eve Stewart, and composer Andrew Dickson—also contribute some of their most restrained and nuanced work, as does the ensemble cast, and particularly Leigh regulars Peter Wight as the police inspector and Phil Davis as Vera's husband.

Almost as much of a period piece as Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake likewise suggests that the past is still with us. Certainly abortion, although it was legalized in Britain at the end of the Sixties (just a few years before it became legal in the U.S.), is still an issue that sets moral compasses aquiver. About halfway through the film, Vera is arrested and the rest of the narrative deals with the reactions of family, friends, the police, and the courts to the news that a woman regarded as the soul of goodness is a criminal. No one is more deeply affected than Vera herself, whose identity is completely shattered. She has never allowed herself to consider the danger to herself or to the women whose pregnancies she aborts. She has never thought about the consequences to her family, who until this point had been completely left in the dark, of her being branded a criminal. She has simply “helped out”—she can never bring herself to say the word “abortion”—and there's an inference that she was once in need of the same help that she has been offering. But when the police come to arrest her, she doesn't lie or protest. “I know why you're here,” she says, and Leigh holds on her face as it seems literally to crumble. It's an extraordinarily demanding moment, and Staunton more than fulfills it, because she somehow communicates that it is defining not only for Vera but for the film as well. What's at stake here is both a character in crisis and the meaning of realism itself. We are not watching a documentary. We are watching a work of narrative fiction in which the truth of lived experience informs the truth of the form. At their most compelling, Mike Leigh's films, like Chardin's paintings, make us consider both life and art.