LONDON - You've seen Imelda Staunton before - possibly in period garb, probably stealing a scene from more famous co-stars.
One of Britain's most versatile stage and screen actors, Staunton was Gwyneth Paltrow's tart-tongued nurse in "Shakespeare in Love," reeled off Regency repartee in Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility" and cavorted in Kenneth Branagh's "Much Ado About Nothing."
She tackles a grittier period drama in "Vera Drake," Mike Leigh's emotionally devastating film about a well-meaning woman destroyed by society, secrecy and silence.
Staunton's performance in the title role won her the best actress award at September's Venice Film Festival - where the movie took the Golden Lion for best picture. Now playing across the United States, it had its British debut at the opening night gala of the London Film Festival, which ended Thursday.
After a 28-year career - often in the kind of colorful supporting roles - Staunton is gratified but levelheaded about the prospect of an Academy Award nomination.
"If it had happened 20 years ago it might have turned my head," the 48-year-old Staunton said during an interview during the London festival.
Leigh is best known for intense, bleakly comic portraits of contemporary Britain such as "Life is Sweet," "Naked" and "Secrets and Lies." "Vera Drake" is set in 1950, in a postwar world of rationing and rain.
Vera is a bustling woman who scuttles about her working-class neighborhood dispensing comfort, cheer and endless cups of tea - and has a sideline "helping out" women with unwanted pregnancies.
She doesn't think of it as abortion, much less a crime. But the law does, and Vera is dragged through a judicial system that mystifies and terrifies her.
The film meticulously evokes a period in Britain when emotion was concealed behind a stiff upper lip. World War II and its suffering are spoken of only briefly and brusquely, and Vera keeps her sideline a secret from her loving family. When they discover it, they can scarcely comprehend, just as Vera is stunned and overwhelmed by her arrest and trial.
"Nowadays we're spoon-fed these courtroom dramas where people are given fantastic speeches in the witness box," Staunton said. "Come on - that's not reality.
"It would have been ridiculous to assume she could have defended herself. The modern woman says, 'Come on, we've got a voice now.' And of course it wasn't like that. She was destroyed by what she'd done to her family."
Staunton acknowledges the topic of abortion elicits strong reactions, but says Leigh's "brilliantly complicated" film makes people grapple with the moral complexities.
"It doesn't take sides, and yet I don't think it's a soft-option film," she said. "I think it's loaded with emotion and compassion on all sides - the police, the law, the women who have it done, the women who do it. It looks at the whole picture and makes us question the whole issue."
Vera, she says, is "a good woman doing what some people consider not a very good deed."
The film was Staunton's first experience with Leigh's notoriously demanding working method, which involves creating characters through discussion, research and improvisation during months of rehearsals.
There's no script, and actors are kept in the dark about aspects of the plot - the actors playing Vera's family didn't know the film was about abortion until the scene in which the police show up at the door.
In Staunton's case, preparation for the role included a lot of scrubbing and polishing - training for Vera's job, cleaning the houses of the rich.
"You've got to embody the woman who spends her life cleaning," Staunton said.
Staunton acknowledges she was apprehensive about working with Leigh, but that "it turned out to be the best working process I've ever, ever done."
Staunton appears next in the Emma Thompson-scripted film "Nanny McPhee" and the BBC series "Fingersmith," both scheduled for release in 2005.
"What was hard was going straight from this to the next job. It was terribly hard to pick up words that I hadn't thought of. But since then it's been OK."
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