A strangely jubilant atmosphere prevailed at Monday’s boozy standing lunch in central London, where this year’s British Independent Film Award nominees were read out to an invited crowd of journalists, industry pros and some of the nominees themselves. Well, perhaps not “strangely”: free Moët champagne and gourmet sliders tend to brighten the black moods of film folk, and that’s before you start throwing awards at them.
But the general air of apology and scepticism that clouds most British industry events was absent: for once, no one was complaining about what a crap year it was for UK cinema, a surprisingly routine line even in the best circumstances. Indeed, once the nominees for Best British Independent Film had been read out, conversation turned in quite the opposite direction: when the frequently filler-reliant BIFAs could assemble a slate as diverse and exciting as “Shame,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “Senna” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Tyrannosaur,” you’d be hard-pressed to call it anything but a banner year for the industry.
That’s a line that first started getting bandied about at Venice, when “Tinker, Tailor” “Shame” and Andrea Arnold’s vastly ambitious “Wuthering Heights” all premiered on consecutive days: only “Shame” left with a major award, but the rainy little island was nonetheless the talk of the Lido for a good week. It compensated for a lower-than-usual profile at Cannes, with only “We Need To Talk About Kevin” represented for the limeys, and left empty-handed in spite of stunning reviews.
Anglophiles would have been better off at SXSW weeks before, where “Weekend” and “Kill List” quietly debuted to appreciative noises, only to become the year’s buzziest ‘true’ UK indies a few months down the line. The Brits’ festival presence came home to roost at last month’s London Film Festival, where “Kevin” became the first homegrown title to take the festival’s Best Film prize – in the same week it opened to sensational reviews and jaw-dropping crossover box-office.
Moreover, it’s the second surprise local hit from the festival track in as many months: in September, “Tinker, Tailor” caught pundits off-guard by topping the UK box-office for two straight weeks. And this is to say nothing of the massive commercial success of two summer sleepers: record-breaking doc “Senna” and, less prestigiously but no less delightfully, TV spinoff “The Inbetweeners Movie.” (On another note, I hear a little Britpic called “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” also did quite well.)
So, a good year, one that suggests the mixed signals of 2010 – when “The King’s Speech” guzzled money and awards alike, just as its beneficiary, the UK Film Council, was ominously shut down by the Tory government – might be shaking out in a positive fashion. Bully for us, you say. But what impact, if any, might we smug Brits have in the awards race on the other side of the pond? Which of these contenders can survive the transatlantic sail? And if several of them do, might they eat into each other’s chances?
A few titles can be cleared immediately: “Wuthering Heights,” too chilly and foreboding even for the BIFA voters, is being held by Oscilloscope until 2012, when it will stand even less chance of wooing American awards bodies than the company’s “Meek’s Cutoff” (sort of a pictorial US equivalent) does this year. Pity poor Terence Davies’s Toronto-stamped “The Deep Blue Sea,” whose hopes of at least a BAFTA nod for Rachel Weisz’s staggering career-best performance are on life support after BIFA ignored it outright. (The season can sometimes be a short one for the minnows.) “Weekend,” one of the year’s most purely lovely films, has won over US critics by the shedload, but if it proved too small to score in the British indie circle, it’ll likely have to settle for a stack of critics’ Top 10 citations as its reward. (No shame in that.)
So that whittles the UK’s Oscar roster down to “Tinker, Tailor,” “Shame,” “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” “Senna,” “Harry Potter” and, of course, the Harvey Weinstein performance triptych of "The Iron Lady," "My Week With Marilyn" and "Coriolanus." (For the purposes of this discussion, we’re not calling “War Horse” British, though it’ll likely find British sympathizers, given the source material.)
Few of them are exactly Academy-tailored bait in the “King’s Speech” mold, or even the “Atonement” one. Two of them will have already narrowed their focus to a single category: “Senna” looks as good as anything else for a Best Documentary nod (though it deserves editing honors too), while “Coriolanus” can take a supporting actress bid for the matchless Vanessa Redgrave to the bank.
Bar the unseen (albeit warily regarded) Thatcher biopic, only one of that motley crew, Tomas Alfredson’s elegant, profitable period spy drama, seemingly has a snowball’s chance of a Best Picture Oscar nod. When you put it like that, the situation doesn’t seem that complicated: I’ve said from the beginning that “Tinker, Tailor” will be the chief beneficiary of the fabled ‘British vote’ in the Academy, riding it to a fair spread of Oscar nods, not to mention BAFTA ones out the proverbial wazoo. Its robust tally of BIFA nods (where I hear certain minor rules were relaxed for it to qualify) certainly doesn’t indicate otherwise.
But start looking at other categories, and certain potential conflicts arise – particularly in the acting races, where several cool UK outsiders are angling for attention across the pond. The consensus for some time has been that Gary Oldman’s rich but reserved anchoring performance in Alfredson’s film will finally net the veteran actor’s actor his ludicrously overdue first Oscar nod – but how much is his campaign threatened by the increasingly loud buzz for man-of-the-hour Michael Fassbender?
I initially wrote off the aggressively arthouse-oriented “Shame” as any kind of awards player after its Venice debut, but that was before Fox Searchlight cannily turned it into one of the season’s most volatile stories, extracting maximum chatter from its apparent debits (that discussion-baiting NC-17 rating) as well as its undeniable advantages (critical hoopla and a ubiquitous leading man).
It’s enough to bring me round to the idea that the amassed hype for film and Fassbender alike will coagulate into a single, year-crowning nomination for the actor – but will Oscar voters save two spots on the ballot for offbeat British actors who don’t quite play the game? Right now, I’m saying yes, but it’s a fragile situation. A similar situation, with a less optimistic outlook, exists over in the Best Actress category. Tilda Swinton, overlooked for fine work two years running and once more on stunning form in “Kevin,” is one of several dark horses hoping to pounce (yes, my horses pounce) if an indie spot becomes available on the ballot – but how much of the loyal home vote could she lose to grassroots buzz for lesser-known, but no less deserving, “Tyrannosaur” star Olivia Colman? (Meanwhile, the Academy might well decide that nominating Americans Meryl Streep and/or Michelle Williams for UK-produced films is enough of a bone to throw the Brits in that category.)
Of course, these are pie-in-the-sky questions at this stage: there’s a chance that none of these varyingly prickly films will cross over in any department, and a good year for cinema in Britain will remain, well, just that. Suddenly, it seems oddly prescient that one of “Shame”’s most striking scenes features Carey Mulligan breathily crooning that iconic lyric, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” Start spreading the news.
(This week's updated predictions here.)
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