Dench, Law, Caine members of formidable bunch

LONDON — BAFTA has always liked to honor its own. But the time is long gone when that meant scouring the nether regions of supporting cast and second unit lists for suitable Brit talent to bestow awards upon.

These days, BAFTA voters are spoilt for choice. British actors, directors, writers and artisans routinely find themselves front and center in a wide range of international movies, from Hollywood blockbusters to lavish Euro pics and even U.S. indie fare.

Blighty might not yet have spawned anyone to rival Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson or Harrison Ford — or their sole female counterpart, Julia Roberts — in the $25 million pay bracket. But when it comes to an awards race, there are few American stars who would be confident in a one-on-one with Judi Dench, Michael Caine or Jude Law.

No one steals a scene, or indeed a whole movie, better than a Brit. All those years of living off the crumbs from Hollywood’s table has made them adept at making the most of a few lines. Dench won an Oscar for just 10 minutes of screen time in “Shakespeare In Love.” Samantha Morton didn’t have any lines at all in “Sweet and Lowdown,” but she still grabbed an Oscar nomination and BAFTA’s supporting actress award.

Bravura cameos are all very well, but increasingly British actors are rising toward the top of the bill. And unlike previous generations, they don’t even have to move to Los Angeles.

British directors too, such as Stephen Frears, John Madden and Iain Softley, are moving with growing ease from small Brit pics to big Hollywood movies and back again, while a select handful of U.K.-based writers are constantly called upon by the studios.

The rise of major Euro financiers, combined with the massive importance of international markets to Hollywood, has created a spiral of demand for British talent. Take a look at a few of the big international movies in the works:

  • Law (next in Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” with Emily Watson and Kristen Scott Thomas), Rachel Weisz and Joe Fiennes (see also Chen Kaige’s “Killing Me Softly” and Milcho Manchevski’s “Dust”) topline Mandalay’s “Enemy at the Gates.”

  • Hossein Amini wrote, co-wrote or did a polish on pics such as Miramax/Paramount’s remake “Four Feathers” (shot with a largely British crew), the upcoming Phoenix pic “Shanghai” (which Mike Newell may direct after Working Title’s “The Poetess”) and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.”

  • The “Gangs of New York” cast includes Brits Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Lewis, the dad in “Billy Elliot,” whose director Stephen Daldry now is shooting “The Hours” for Scott Rudin and Paramount, starring Glenn Close, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore.

  • New York-based Rudin also is co-producing “Iris,” to be directed by Richard Eyre and star Dench, last seen in Miramax’s “Chocolat,” for which she’s received an Oscar and a BAFTA nod, and next to play Lady Bracknell in Oliver Parker’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” alongside Rupert Everett.

Dench has become something of a Miramax franchise — the company is circling both “Iris” and “Earnest.” Indeed, Miramax probably bears greater responsibility than any other company for the current prominence of British talent in international movies.

A decade ago, the Weinsteins were at the forefront of promoting Brit talent in quirky little pics, both at U.S. arthouses and at American award ceremonies. As the profile of British actors started to rise, Miramax started putting them in bigger and bigger movies, creating a new hybrid of Euro sensibilities with American narrative and marketing drive, to compelling effect.

Michael Caine’s Oscar- and BAFTA-winning supporting perf in Miramax’s “The Cider House Rules” has propelled him into huge demand, with roles in “Quills” opposite Kate Winslet, “Last Orders” with Bob Hoskins and the upcoming “Boswell for the Defence” with Samantha Morton.

Morton next will star in Lynne Ramsay’s “Morven Callar.” Winslet recently starred in Michael Apted’s “Enigma” with Dougray Scott and is moving on to “Therese Raquin.” Scott will co-star with John Malkovich in “Ripley’s Game” for Fine Line.

Other Brit thesps, such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, Elizabeth Hurley and Minnie Driver, have gone Hollywood with considerable success, while Kate Beckinsale (“Pearl Harbor”) is rising fast.

The U.K.’s Working Title, now co-financed by Universal and StudioCanal, also proved the global box office appeal of British talent with movies such as “Notting Hill,” “Bean” and, of course, “Billy Elliot.”

“Bean” star Rowan Atkinson is lining up for WT’s spy spoof “Johnny English: A Touch of Weevil.” Other studios rushed to stake out the same territory, triggering a snowball effect that has led to a remarkable spate of big-budget Hollywood movies based on British material and heavily reliant on British talent.

Top of the pile is “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” based on J.K. Rowling’s global bestseller. The Warner movie, to be sure, is written and directed by Americans (Steve Kloves and Chris Columbus, respectively), but has a wholly British cast (huge opportunities for scene-stealing by Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Julie Walters and Ian Hart) and a largely British crew.

Then there’s Paramount’s “Tomb Raider,” based on the British computer game, directed by returning expat Simon West and co-starring Daniel Craig and Iain Glen alongside the Yank lead Angelina Jolie.

Universal is taking “About a Boy,” starring Hugh Grant and based on the North London-set bestseller by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”), out of turnaround from New Line.

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