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MOVIE REVIEW

Imelda Staunton: In a tremendous performance, she inhabits 'Vera Drake.'

You're not supposed to notice a woman like Vera Drake, and that's what she's counting on. A cherubic middle-age charwoman in 1950 England, Vera (Imelda Staunton) scrubs the floors of the upper classes but otherwise keeps to her North London neighborhood. She lovingly tends to her family and slips unnoticed through alleyways and up dark staircases, looking in on invalids, playing matchmaker, selflessly helping out where and when she can. She has a smile for everyone, our Vera. And if you're a young girl in "trouble," she can take care of that, too. Vera -- mousy, invisible Vera -- has a sideline in

abortions. "Vera Drake," the heartbreaking new film from Mike Leigh ("Secrets and Lies," "Topsy-Turvy"), watches its dowdy heroine go about her business for the first hour, then dispassionately calls in the police. There are no surprises. Instead, there's a wealth of simple, hard human feeling, and a gathering indignation at the absurdities of men and the law. The film is startlingly even-handed; even the police inspector (Peter Wight) comes to regret what he's doing. The villains here are the Offenses Against the Person Act of 1861 and a bureaucracy that can casually break a saint.

For Vera is a saint, and Leigh has no qualms about painting her as such. Powered by Staunton's gently incandescent performance -- an immediate awards-season front-runner -- the film's title role is as blameless as fiction can make her. Vera takes no money for her "visits" and doesn't know that the avaricious friend (Ruth Sheen) who serves as go-between is exacting payment from the women. She keeps her family in the dark, uses a soap solution rather than implements, and fusses maternally over her frightened charges. Vera's zeal has an element of both nobility and willful delusion. "You perform abortions," the inspector says, seeking an easy confession. "That's what you call it," she tearfully responds.

Is Leigh stacking his deck? Of course he is, and that's his point. If a woman so selfless can bring the full wrath of the throne down upon her head, where does that leave other women? What does it say about a society that does this?

It says that the punishment depends on your class, for one thing. In an awkwardly inserted subplot early on in "Vera Drake," the daughter of one of Vera's employers, a nervous little thing (Sally Hawkins), is date-raped and impregnated by a boyfriend. Her road to wellville is smoothed by the ministrations of upper-class doctors, psychiatrists, and angelic hospital sisters. If you're poor, by contrast, Vera is your only recourse.

I'm making the film sound didactic, when for the most part it's just beautifully observed. The sense of period -- of gray postwar struggle and optimism -- is quietly convincing, so much more so than the Edwardian trompe l'oeil of "Topsy-Turvy." Leigh has become celebrated over the years for his use of improvisation and rehearsal to build character ensembles, and he may have outdone himself with Vera's family members, who can't always find the words they want but who know exactly how to lean on one another.

Her husband, Stan (Phil Davis), is a terse World War II veteran who runs a garage with his brother, Frank (Adrian Scarborough); a brief conversation about his wartime experiences goes a long way toward explaining why Stan feels he's "a lucky man." Among other things, "Vera Drake" catches the relief at simply being alive of a community and a generation that paid a heavier price than most.

By contrast, Vera's son, Sid (Daniel Mays), is a happy-go-lucky sort for whom the bad days are past and who maneuvers through an uncertain moral landscape with the confidence of youth. Ironically, it's he who has the hardest time when the knock comes at the door. Instead of taking sides in a debate, Leigh allows all his characters their individual say, and it's that breadth of feeling that teases out the decency in them. Decency, more than anything else, is what's under assault here.

Leigh does indulge his taste for brute social-realist melodrama when the tumbrels of justice roll in the second half of "Vera Drake." He indulges his leading actress, too, whose tears keep flowing long after we've gotten the point that she's weeping for our sins as well. It's still a tremendous performance. Staunton has popped up in character parts and the occasional lead over the past decade -- she can play hearty, pinch-faced women of any social class required -- but this is a star-making role precisely because it obliterates stardom through gesture and bearing. We all know women like Vera; happy sparrows who live for tea and sympathy, and whose features light up when their faith in people is rewarded. It's not people who betray Vera, it's an entire social system, and she never sees it coming.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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