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‘Vera Drake’ wins Venice Film Festival

Mike Leigh directed the film about an underground abortionist in the 1950s.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake,” a film about an underground abortionist in 1950s England, won the Golden Lion for best picture Saturday at the close of the 11-day Venice Film Festival.

“Vera Drake” is another of Leigh’s raw, naturalistic films dealing with social issues in Britain. This time the setting is London of half a century ago, where a seemingly unexceptional housewife is secretly performing abortions.

“In a cynical world, it is a wonderful thing and most reassuring when low-budget, serious, committed, independent, European films are recognized and encouraged in this way and helped to reach their audiences,” Leigh told the awards gala at central Venice’s Fenice theater.

Leigh, 61, is famous for drawing out stunning performances from his actors, and this time was no different, with Imelda Staunton taking best actress for her role as Drake.

“I do think it deals with a complex subject with such compassion,” she told the audience. “Mike Leigh is a genius.”

Leigh is known for disturbing and emotional films such “Secrets and Lies” (1996) and “Naked” (1992). His intense approach often requires months of working on character development with the actors.

The runner-up of the night was the Spanish film “Mar Adentro” (“The Sea Within”), by “The Others” director Alejandro Amenabar. The film had been touted as a possible best-picture winner, but instead it took home the Silver Lion Jury Grand Prix. Star Javier Bardem won best actor for his role as a quadriplegic man who wants to end his life.

The Silver Lion for best director went to Korean director Kim Ki-duk for “Bin jip.”

Some 22 films were in competition for the Golden Lion awards. The nine-person jury was headed by British director John Boorman and included filmmaker Spike Lee.

This year’s festival was notable for its shaky organization, and the awards ceremony preserved the trend.

The presenter, Italian actress Claudia Gerini, initially handed Amenabar a Silver Lion, then announced it was time for the big one: the Golden Lion for best picture. However, she’d left out the Silver Lion for Kim, and suddenly it was unclear who had won what.

“Sorry, I missed a prize,” she said with embarrassment. “We haven’t arrived at the Golden Lion.”

The most common complaint during the festival was that screenings started late — sometimes by over an hour.

A late-night presentation of Johnny Depp’s “Finding Neverland” didn’t begin until after 2 a.m. Another long delay preceded Al Pacino’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Then it turned out that overbooking had left the actor without a seat. And part way through a screening of the film “Eros,” the projectionist mistakenly began showing a different film.

That said, the festival had high points, most visibly its flood of Hollywood stars.

The show began Sept. 1 when Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks turned up for the opening-gala screening of “The Terminal.” Other stars present included Nicole Kidman, John Travolta, Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Quentin Tarantino and Angelina Jolie.

And Saturday night was a time to celebrate.

No one did so more electrically than 80-year-old “Singin’ in the Rain” co-director Stanley Donen. He was awarded a lifetime achievement award and, on the prodding of hostess Sophia Loren, did a nimble dance routine across the stage.

“I had a great life. I made a lot of movies,” Donen said. “It’s not over yet. I’m gonna do some more. And I’m just thrilled to be here.”