Is the newly British 'Gravity' the film to beat at the BAFTAs?

UK's top film awards again reflect the Oscar race, with a few key exceptions

<p>Sandra Bullock in &quot;Gravity.&quot;</p>

Sandra Bullock in "Gravity."

Credit: Warner Bros.

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As I said in my predictions piece yesterday, "Gravity" was always likely to find a strong core of support in the BAFTA membership, given the involvement of heavyweight British producer David Heyman, extensive below-the-line contributions from British artists and the fact that much of it was shot at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios. Still, I didn't anticipate them embracing Alfonso Cuarón's film this much. Not only does "Gravity" lead all contenders with 11 nominations, but BAFTA effectively claimed it as their own, handing it a Best British Film nomination that pushed it ahead of "American Hustle" and "12 Years a Slave" in the final tally.

Fair enough, one might say, though the nomination -- along with one for another US studio film, "Saving Mr. Banks" -- is already proving controversial. Pundits are questioning the criteria of what makes a film officially British. If "Gravity" and "Banks" qualify, why not "12 Years a Slave," with its heavily British cast and crew, and development at the hands of UK independent powerhouse Film4? Production is what makes the difference, and while many may carp, the nominations stand: you might not have thought of it this way before, but for the purposes of these particular awards, "Gravity" is as British as Earl Grey tea.

That lends an interesting dynamic to a race one might have called early for "12 Years a Slave" -- generally, when a major Oscar contender is of significantly British stock, that gives it the edge with local voters, and the presence of homegrown talents Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor et al counts for a lot, even if the film isn't "officially" British.

Do this morning's nominations, however, suggest that BAFTA's collective sympathies might lie more with a space spectacular than the sobering slice of American history? And if so, if that subtly reflective of how things may swing on the other side of the Atlantic? It's worth noting that "Gravity" didn't miss a beat on the BAFTA list: its 11 nods include one for its screenplay, largely overlooked in the season thus far, and every technical category save Costume Design and Makeup, for which it's hardly a plausible contender.

"12 Years a Slave," on the other hand, is strong up top, but suffered some semi-surprising technical misses: no Costume Design nod, for example, nor Makeup or Sound. Those omissions may not be as significant as it would have been when the entire BAFTA membership voted on nominees in all categories, but they have cost the film the leading tally most assumed it would get, allowing "Gravity" to hog the morning's headlines.

What of "American Hustle," though? David O. Russell's ABSCAM romp may be an increasingly estimable threat in the Oscar race, but you could have been forgiven for thinking it might not register as strongly with the Brits -- after all, "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook" were nominated only for acting and writing. Not so this time: "Hustle" equalled "Slave's" tally of 10 nominations, including nods for all four of its chief players. Could Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and, particularly, Amy Adams -- all overlooked by SAG -- repeat on Oscar morning, making "Hustle" Russell's second straight film to pull off the acting-category quartet? It's entirely possible.

That Bale scored a nomination from his compatriots is especially notable, considering what a bloodbath the Best Actor category evidently was. Bruce Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks and Ejiofor all made the cut too, meaning Robert Redford was once again frozen out -- alongside Matthew McConaughey, a potential Oscar frontrunner. "Dallas Buyers Club" may have been lapped up by the Guilds, but BAFTA simply wasn't feeling it: the omission of Jared Leto, hitherto viewed as a dead cert for the Oscar, from the Best Supporting Actor lineup was the most shocking news of the morning. (It wasn't for lack of effort, either: both McConaughey and Leto did their BAFTA Q&A duties.)

Perhaps the most surprising Best Actor omission, however, is that of Michael Douglas. Eligible in the UK as a theatrical release, HBO's "Behind the Candelabra" evidently had a lot of admirers in BAFTA, scoring five nominations -- including Best Adapted Screenplay and a dubiously categorized Best Supporting Actor nod for co-lead Matt Damon. Douglas must have been awfully close.

As expected, "Captain Phillips" -- another US film with heavy British involvement -- performed robustly, scoring nine nominations. And BAFTA voters were predictably loyal to homegrown hit "Philomena," which received a modest four nods, but got the two that count: Best Film and Best British Film, the latter of which it seems likely to take rather comfortably. (I sense BAFTA voters may balk at actually giving "Gravity" the win there.)

As I predicted, "Philomena's" Stephen Frears made way for Martin Scorsese in the Best Director category; "The Wolf of Wall Street" landed four nods overall, but -- like "Hugo" before it -- missed out in the top race. "Her," like "Dallas Buyers Club," was left entirely on the sidelines, but "Nebraska" landing a smattering of major nods: Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay and, unexpectedly, Best Cinematography. June Squibb, however, was surprisingly nixed from the Best Supporting Actress lineup in favor of Julia Roberts and Oprah Winfrey, both nominated despite lack of overall support for their films. (Roberts, indeed, landed "August: Osage County" its only nomination, as Meryl Streep missed the Best Actress cut. Might the Academy also take a break from the 17-time nominee?)

Elsewhere, the list largely checks off the expected Oscar nominees, as the BAFTAs settle ever more comfortably into their US precursor status -- once more, champions of independent British cinema were given little to cheer about. UK foreign Oscar submission "Metro Manila," which took top honors at the British Independent Film Awards last month, was handed only a Best Foreign Language Film nod, failing even to make the Best British Film list. Clio Barnard's "The Selfish Giant," by some measure the year's most acclaimed British art film, was luckier, but scored in no other category. When films directed by Alfonso Cuarón, John Lee Hancock and Ron Howard make up half of BAFTA's prize British showcase, it's fair to say the awards' singular identity is -- for better or worse -- slowly slipping away.

Check out the full list of nominations here.

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Guy Lodge
Critic
Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.
2013-2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
UPDATED: MARCH 2, 2014