By Neil Smith
BBC News Online
The 48th London Film Festival opened with the UK premiere of Vera Drake, a powerful drama about abortion from celebrated British director Mike Leigh.
Imelda Staunton was named best actress at the Venice film festival
Astonishingly, this is the first time one of his features has been chosen to kick off this prestigious event.
The movie was controversially rejected by the Cannes film festival but went on to win the Golden Lion award at Venice.
In addition, Imelda Staunton was named best actress - prompting speculation she may be in line for an Oscar nomination next year.
Set in 1950s London, the film revolves around the eponymous Vera, a working-class wife and loving mother to her two grown-up children.
Mike Leigh specialises in gritty dramas
When not caring for her brood in their small tenement flat, she cleans the houses of wealthier families, looks after her ageing mother and selflessly tends to the needs of those less fortunate than herself.
But Vera has a secret life she keeps hidden from her garage-mechanic husband Stan (Phil Davis), apprentice-tailor son Sid (Daniel Mays) and factory-employee daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly).
At the instigation of her friend Lily (Ruth Sheen), a black marketeer, she helps young women who have "got themselves in trouble" by terminating unwanted pregnancies.
Leigh says Vera Drake is "a film about good and evil, society and love [and] a woman motivated entirely by helping people".
But Vera's altruistic intentions do not stop the authorities from arresting her once they have been made aware of her illegal activities.
The movie tellingly juxtaposes its heroine's plight with that of Susan (Sally Hawkins), the daughter of one of the upper-class ladies Vera skivvies for.
Vera's arrest highlights society's double standards
Raped by a drunken boyfriend, Susan is able to obtain a legal termination by paying a psychiatrist to approve the procedure on medical grounds.
The double standard makes Vera's prosecution and disgrace all the more harrowing as she is mercilessly dragged through the courts.
The fact that she accepts no payment for her services cuts no ice with the prescriptive and punitive legal establishment.
Dealing with complex moral questions and divisive social concerns, Vera Drake is a more overtly political film than we are used to seeing from its veteran director.
Thankfully, it is not without moments of humour and offers a meticulously recreated vision of urban life in the immediate post-war years.
One of the movie's most affecting scenes comes early on as the Drakes sit down after supper to swap stories of loss and tragedy during the Blitz.
And fans of Leigh's Oscar-nominated Secrets And Lies will appreciate the sequence where a fractious family reunion predictably ends in tears.
There is no shortage of the latter as Vera's humble world caves in around her. Indeed, Staunton's character starts crying around an hour into the story and does not stop until the end credits.
Some may object to such blatant emotional manipulation, or revealing abortion scenes that leave almost nothing to the imagination.
However, there is no denying the film is a superbly realised, brilliantly acted "kitchen sink" drama that confronts important issues with intelligence and compassion.
Vera Drake opens in the UK on 7 January 2005.
The London Film Festival runs from 20 October to 4 November 2004.