VENICE, Italy — “Vera Drake,” Mike Leigh’s tale of a working-class mother who is caught performing illegal abortions in 1950s England, won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion for best picture Sept. 11.

“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 cleaning woman is secretly performing abortions. As this illegal activity comes to light, its ramifications tear apart her family and the world around her.

“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.”

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. “Vera Drake” opens Oct. 8 in New York City as part of the New York Film Festival.