For years now, we've been taking Mike Leigh pretty much for granted - and all the while, almost unnoticed, he's been steadily deepening and refining his craft, developing into one of our topmost film-makers. With Vera Drake, deservedly garlanded with the Golden Lion at Venice (after the myopicselectors at Cannes turned it down), there can't be any further doubt. Richly detailed, compassionate and deeply felt, this is one of his finest films to date.
His recreation of the '50s - that pinched, embarrassed decade - is flawless. Not just the sets and props, but the attitudes, gestures and speech-patterns of the characters. Yet so too - the flipside of the prevailing social constrictions - is the sense of cohesion, the warm mutual supportiveness of Vera's family unit. With the war still a vivid memory, this is a proudly working-class London where people instinctively look out for each other - a spirit personified by Vera's bustling, tirelessly kindly little figure.
Which makes it all the more agonising when her world is ripped apart. It doesn't matter that she thought she was doing good: helping these scared, wretched girls out of kindness. In '50s Britain, abortion is a crime. Not that the film takes a pro or anti stance on a still-contentious subject. Leigh merely presents a situation and lets the audience wrestle with the thorny ethical issues.
If you've always thought of Imelda Staunton as an amiable light comedienne, you're in for a shock. As Vera, she gives a performance of staggering conviction. When disaster hits, her face and whole body seem to crumple in misery and shame. Her tear-stained face and inarticulate mumblings are heartbreaking to see, but so compelling that it's impossible to look away. Her fellow actors are uniformly superb - especially Phil Davis as her staunchly loyal husband and Eddie Marsan as her awkward, good-hearted son-in-law.
If you're seeking `entertainment', look elsewhere. If you want your thoughts poked and emotions stirred, watch this thoughtful, human film.
Prepare to be moved. This is Mike Leigh at his best with an outstanding cast. Gruelling but grown-up, intelligent without being preachy.