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Unlike most other writer-directors, Leigh brings together his actors for six months of improvisation before writing. Staunton took to the process eagerly. "It was just delicious from start to finish," she says. "And then to have that piece of work heralded is almost too good to be true." Vera is a kindhearted simpleton of virtue, which is what makes her arrest--after one of her "procedures" almost kills a woman--so unbearable and Staunton's portrayal of her so poignant. In lesser hands, this paragon could be a parody, Vera's collapse into addled silence a ludicrously pitiful plea for absolution. But Staunton's objectivity, her refusal to generalize from the specifics of her case, makes this an amazingly powerful performance.
Staunton hopes to parlay her acclaim into more film work, though the theater actress avoids long Broadway runs. Basically, she says, "I'm a bit of a homegirl." Fortunately, not too much of one. Because she's also basically a superb and completely original actress. --R.S. Reported by Lina Lofaro/New York