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"I'm not going to be narrow enough to claim these fellows can't act,” wrote acidic industry columnist Hedda Hopper in 1964. “They've had plenty of practice. The weather's so foul on that tiny isle that, to get in out of the rain, they gather themselves in theaters and practice 'Hamlet' on each other.”
“These fellows” were, of course, the British – who, much to the chagrin of Hollywood loyalists like Hopper, enjoyed a golden streak at the Academy Awards consistent with the all-purpose ‘British Invasion’ of the mid-60s. When she wrote this, the UK had claimed back-to-back Best Picture wins with “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Tom Jones,” while victories for such British stars as Julie Christie, Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and Paul Scofield lay ahead.
It’s a love affair the Academy has maintained over the decades, in some periods more passionately than in others: Colin Welland’s cry of “The British are coming!” as underdog “Chariots of Fire” claimed the 1981 Best Picture Oscar signalled another mini-surge. More recently, after a lengthy stretch of American domination, triumphs for “Slumdog Millionaire” in the 2008 race, and “The King’s Speech” two years later, suggested another invasion might be afoot.
Last year, however, the brakes were slammed on that notion, despite what critics largely agreed had been a banner year for British film. Titles like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “Shame,” “Tyrannosaur,” “Senna,” “Kill List” and “Weekend” pointed to an industry bristling with creativity and risk, expanding the notion of UK cinema beyond stately costume drama, feelgood comedy and safe hits like “The King’s Speech” and “An Education.”
It seemed the Academy, however, was more comfortable with the latter model, as that vintage 2011 slate made scarcely a dent in the Oscar race: “Tinker Tailor,” a joint nomination leader in the BAFTA race, scored just three Oscar nods, while Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton were pointedly snubbed for “Shame” and “Kevin,” respectively. For the first time since 2005, the Best Picture slate yielded not one British nominee, despite its swollen size. Even “Senna,” laden with honors across the pond, failed to crack the Academy’s documentary longlist. At the end of the day, the year’s only Britpic with an Oscar to its name (two of them, actually, and one for its American star) was the dismal Thatcher biopic “The Iron Lady” – not exactly a prime representative of the renaissance UK critics had been trumpeting.
Then again, even beyond the Oscar-fodder bracket, 2012 has thus far proven those trumpets premature. Whether 2011 was merely one anomalously good year, or whether we’re just now feeling the effects of the UK Film Council closure and budget restrictions implemented by David Cameron’s Tory government, it’s been a dismayingly limp year for British cinema – unless, of course, you choose to read the robust commercial performance of bland blue-rinser hit “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” on both sides of the Atlantic as any kind of progress.
Though the festival circuit has turned up some niche standouts in the vein of “Berberian Sound Studio,” “My Brother the Devil” and “Sightseers,” while the reliable documentary quarter pitched in with “The Imposter” and “Marley,” there’s nothing that has caught the indie-crossover buzz of a “Kevin” or a “Shame.” Moving into the more mainstream prestige sector, there’s still little to cling to: “Anna Karenina” was primed for a Best Picture spot, but with mixed reviews and disappointing box office returns at home, that looks increasingly unlikely. Once talked up as a potential “King’s Speech” redux, “Hyde Park on Hudson” bombed at the fall festivals. “Quartet” is more milquetoast fodder for the “Best Exotic Downton Abbey” crowd, but the best it can (or should) hope for is a token performance nod or two.
Fox Searchlight could yet parlay the popularity of “Best Exotic” into filler nominations for acting or even writing, while “Anna Karenina” is certainly good for a stack of technical citations – though Keira Knightley isn’t the secure Best Actress nominee some pundits once thought she was. With that in mind, British pride at the upcoming Academy Awards – the hopes of Daniel Day-Lewis, Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren for US productions notwithstanding – largely seems to rest on two very different juggernauts: “Skyfall” and “ Les Misérables.”
Though I think some critics got a bit over-excited after the film’s first screening last Friday, the effusive reception thus far for the 23rd entry in the Bond franchise has certainly been enough of a story to lend credence to our colleague Greg Ellwood’s theory that the film is a potential Oscar dark horse. If it’s a massive hit globally – and I think that’s more a “when” than an “if” at this point – many will inevitably argue for it as a worthy Best Picture nominee, representing popcorn artistry at the highest level. (It’s a hell of a lot better than “The Avengers” or “The Dark Knight Rises,” if you ask me.) I suspect the Academy will prove as indifferent to such arguments as they were with another acclaimed franchise sequel “The Dark Knight” four years ago, but it’ll be interesting to see how the story plays out. (If nothing else, I do believe the film could finally land Roger Deakins that elusive Best Cinematography Oscar.)
Last and the opposite of least, we get to “Les Mis,” the film many Oscar-watchers are declaring the frontrunner sight unseen. Until the veil is lifted, there’s no way of knowing whether they’re actually onto something or are merely blinded by the lights – though with the film only hitting screens in December, there’s every chance Oscar voters could be persuaded on hype alone. Win or lose, it’s set up to be the biggest British Oscar story since, well, the last film directed by Tom Hooper, though laymen could be forgiven for thinking the Working Title production, with its classic French source material and its quartet of American and Antipodean leads, isn’t very British at all. And even if it’s outstanding, another polished prestige period hit won’t allay concern about this year’s creative downturn in UK film.
The film’s French cultural aspect, meanwhile, might be of more interest to Academy voters who are being given a lot of reasons to go Gallic at the moment. After the triumph of “The Artist” last year (coincidentally alongside wins for French-set US films “Hugo” and “Midnight in Paris”), hopes are high that “Amour” could be the second largely French-made production to crack the Best Picture list in as many years. While the Weinsteins’ crossover smash “The Intouchables” is lurking on the far fringes, there’s a strong chance Marion Cotillard and Emmanuelle Riva could make the Best Actress category 40% français this year. (A reader even pointed out to me the possibility of “Amour,” “Intouchables,” “Sister,” “War Witch” and “Our Children” making the Best Foreign Language Film race an all French-speaking affair.) Perhaps Hedda Hopper was fearing the wrong cultural invasion all along.
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