The last three women to win best-actress Oscars did it by playing a suicidal author, a dirt-poor mother grieving for her dead son and a serial-killing prostitute. So surely Imelda Staunton, star of next week's New York Film Festival favorite "Vera Drake," is well positioned for a statue: she plays a 1950s working-class East Londoner arrested for performing living-room abortions. Beat that, Gwyneth. Admittedly, apart from playing a woman in crisis, Staunton has little in common with recent winners Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry and Charlize Theron. She's 48, barely known outside the London-theater world and doesn't have a single modeling contract. Yet in this year's wide-open race for best actress, Staunton is the category's first near-lock nominee. Just don't tell her that. "Well, it's very worrying, isn't it? The pressure!" Staunton says, laughing. "Truly, though, without sounding ungrateful, I've had my prize. Making this film was the biggest thrill of my life."

How very British. But Staunton isn't just being polite. "Vera Drake" writer-director Mike Leigh ("Secrets and Lies," "Topsy-Turvy") has made his name in art-house cinema by giving actors their dream jobs. He starts with the barest outline of a story, improvises with his cast for six months and then writes a script. In his latest film, one of his very best, he's handed the plum role to Staunton. Vera is a quiet, relentless do-gooder, a loving mother who cleans rich people's houses by day and has a soft spot for penniless young girls "in a bit of trouble," as Vera says, and have nowhere else to turn. She's the kind of woman who spends most of her life unnoticed and prefers it that way, but in Staunton's hands, she's an unforgettable creation.

Abortion remains a loaded subject, but the film's greatest virtue is that it refuses to lecture. "There's no religion or politics in the film," Staunton says. "It just looks at the bare bones of this act with compassion for everyone involved." That includes the police who arrest Vera and the judges who decide her case. Are we giving away too much? It's OK, the plot is secondary. Staunton is the top prize.