Islington, 1950. Charlady Vera (Staunton) bustles about keeping her family together and cheerfully helping others. She also performs discreet abortions for girls 'in trouble'. Eventually, this charitable sideline comes to the attention of the law and a prosecution threatens to break up the family.
Like Topsy-Turvy, this initially appears to be a break from the 'Mike Leigh style', being another period piece. Yet it's one that recreates the living memory of 1950, homing in on characters who could be the grandparents of the people in the director's other films. Vera (Staunton) offers a smile, kind words and endless soothing cups of tea as she provides support and motivation for friends and relations who might otherwise slide into feckless apathy.
Besides caring for her ancient mother and almost invisibly tidying wealthy homes, Vera matter-of-factly performs abortions most Friday afternoons at five (and, incidentally, demonstrates just how to perform a DIY termination). Disaster is inevitable and, when a client suffers complications, the police are called in. Vera's arrested, then retreats into a shell of shame as she's eased through the prosecution, trial and sentencing by not-unsympathetic authorities. It never overstresses subplots that put Vera's crimes in context, like the timid, date-raped upper-class girl (Sally Hawkins) going through a far more hypocritical system to procure an abortion (involving a hefty fee and a discreet stay in a private clinic) or the son's (Daniel Mays) sideline in nylons used to get girls into bed and probably supply Vera with more customers.
Though less comic than most Leigh films, there's an echo of that old wireless standby The Glums in the agonising courtship of Vera's lumpy daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) by terminally shy, scarf-wrapped Reg (Eddie Marsan), with pauses as pregnant as the parade of desperate cameo girls. Also in the Leigh tradition is Vera's sister-in-law (Heather Craney), one of his terrifyingly aspirational women, ruthlessly intent on scrubbing the proletarian taint from her family (and accent) and squandering her husband's earnings on new-fangled luxuries like a television set and a washing machine.
It catches exactly the drab, rationed, overly genteel-at-all-levels-of-society tone of the period (kudos to the location finder, set decorator and prop people). And the last act is almost unbearably affecting, with Staunton - like so many Leigh performers before her - going beyond the comic mannerisms to show naked pain.
An illustrated essay on life before legalised abortion, dotted with fiercely human moments. Painful for many reasons, but highly recommended.
Reviewed by Kim Newman