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Vera Drake - Abortion film takes Golden Lion at Venice

Story by: Jack Foley

A CONTROVERSIAL British movie about abortion has unexpectedly scooped two of the top prizes at this year's Venice Film Festival (2004).

Mike Leigh's Vera Drake took the Golden Lion prize for best film, as well as the best actress award, for British actress, Imelda Staunton, for her role as a cleaning lady, who secretly carries out abortions.

A delighted Leigh said he was flabergasted by the accolade, before thanking the organisers of this year's Cannes Film Festival 'for rejecting this film so we might be here this evening'.

He went on to thank Venice and its jury, including Dame Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson and Spike Lee, for their 'excellent decision', before making special mention of the UK Film Council, for its support.

"All film making is tough and Vera Drake was no exception," he continued. "In a cynical world, it is a wonderful thing, and most reassuring, when low budget, serious, committed, independent, European films are recognised and encouraged in this way."

His star, Staunton, was equally as gushing in her praise for the jury, after receiving the prestigious Coppa Volpi prize.

She commented: "I want to thank the tireless jury for embracing and honouring this film which I'm so proud to be in, because it deals with a complex subject with such compassion."

Vera Drake beat 21 other films to win the Golden Lion, which was awarded at a gala ceremony in Venice's restored La Fenice opera house at the close of the glittering festival.

Of the other top awards at the ceremony, Spanish actor, Javier Bardem, was named best actor for his portrayal of a paralysed man who wants to kill himself, in Alejandro Amenabar's Mar Adentro.

Bardem previously won the best actor award at the 2000 Venice festival for Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls, for which he was also nominated for an Oscar for best actor.

The 61st Venice Film Festival has been one of the most glittering in the history of the showpiece event.

Hollywood stars were in abundance, including Quentin Tarantino, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Al Pacino and Nicole Kidman.

But it hasn't been without controversy or trouble.

Several films were greeted with hostile receptions, including Nicole Kidman's Birth, which was booed by critics.

And a screening of Al Pacino's movie, The Merchant of Venice, was also delayed, when the actor was left without a seat.

Yet, there has still been plenty to admire, details of which are contained within the right-hand column of this page.

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