Leigh takes top prizes at Venice Film Festival with abortion movie

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The Independent Online

Mike Leigh, one of Britain's best known and controversial film-makers, was celebrating a double triumph at the Venice film festival last night when his latest film won the Golden Lion prize for best film and its British star, Imelda Staunton, was named best actress.

Mike Leigh, one of Britain's best known and controversial film-makers, was celebrating a double triumph at the Venice film festival last night when his latest film won the Golden Lion prize for best film and its British star, Imelda Staunton, was named best actress.

Vera Drake has impressed critics at a number of Europe's most prestigious film festivals, but was thought to be an unlikely contender for the top prize because of its controversial subject matter, abortion. In fact the film was rejected for inclusion at this year's Cannes festival.

Staunton, in the title role, plays a cleaning lady in 1950. To her friends and neighbours she is perfectly ordinary, looking after her elderly mother and family. But, in a typical Leigh twist, she has a secret. She helps young girls who have "got themselves into trouble".

Her everyday life is equally absorbing and Leigh portrays a searing portrait of working-class life in the 1950s and the hypocrisy and suffering before abortion was made legal.

Staunton, 48, received a standing ovation at the festival for her performance, which has been described as "compelling" and "superb".

"Thank God there are still great directors in England," said a leading French critic following the premiere.

Speaking after the screening, Leigh said: "I felt very strongly that it was time to deal with the issue of abortion directly, though in a way that poses a moral dilemma for you, the audience, and doesn't draw simple black and white conclusions."

The prizes were presented by Sophia Loren in the city's La Fenice. Leigh's film triumphed over movies such as Mira Nair's big-screen adaptation of Vanity Fair and Nicole Kidman's contentious new film Birth. Vera Drake is released on 7 January.

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