Mike Leigh's post-WWII portrait of a middle-aged homemaker and housecleaner who performs the occasional abortion on the side: "All right, then, dear, first thing we've got to do is put the kettle on." (Tools of the trade: a cheese grater, a bottle of disinfectant, a bar of soap the color and nearly the size of a canned ham, and a rubber tube and squeezable bulb collectively known as a Higginson Syringe.) A master of euphemism, the very embodiment of cheery British sublimation, she doesn't so much do abortions as "help young girls out." And the fetus will not miscarry so much as simply "come away." And everyone is to be addressed as "dear," even the police inspector conducting her interrogation. The rights and wrongs of abortion, as distinct from the legality of it in early-Fifties England, or the fact-of-life of it in any place and period, do not enter into it. Far, far from the run-of-the-mill problem picture, the movie is loaded with what might be termed irrelevancies, the flavors and textures of the characters' lives irrespective of any overriding "issue": Vera's husband, in coveralls, at work in the garage with his business partner and brother; their son taking measurements at the haberdashery or having a night out with his chums at the dance hall; their hopelessly mousy daughter testing lightbulbs on the factory assembly line or throwing herself at -- no, not exactly throwing herself at, but leaning ever so timidly toward -- the lonely bachelor neighbor whom Mum has calculatingly invited to dinner; the circumspect war stories that make up the liveliest topic of conversation at that dinner. The movie narrows its focus and slackens its pace (never very swift) once the police come calling, but by then the reality of the situation -- wonderfully, horribly, excruciatingly real -- has become so engulfing that you would not want to skip a beat. Faultlessly acted from top to bottom: from Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis (tops) to Alex Kelly, Eddie Marsan, Daniel Mays, Peter Wight, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent. (2004) — Duncan Shepherd
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