Host of U.K. candidates could trump Stateside rivals for BAFTA glory

LONDON — Amid gripes from some quarters that the British Academy Film Awards have become too American, along come a pair of doughty Dames with a powerful bid to reclaim the ceremony for the home team.

With Helen Mirren (“The Queen”) and Judi Dench (“Notes on a Scandal”) the hottest of favorites to duel for this year’s actress award, and Kate Winslet (“Little Children”) and dark horse Kate Dickie (“Red Road”) strongly tipped to figure in the running, this year’s BAFTAs are shaping up as a bumper year for British contenders.

Add in Penelope Cruz, also likely to command support for her perf in Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver,” and it will be tough for any American to break into the actress race.

“The Queen” is already established as the early standard-bearer for British hopes at the BAFTAs, with director Stephen Frears, scribe Peter Morgan and Mirren’s co-star Michael Sheen all likely to attract votes. Regardless of how strongly it figures in the main BAFTA race, “The Queen” is almost certain to be nominated for the Alexander Korda Award for outstanding British film of the year.

Other strong Korda contenders that might also break out into the other categories include Working Title’s docudrama “United 93″ by Paul Greengrass; Roger Michell’s geezer romantic comedy “Venus”; Nicholas Hytner’s stage-to-screen transfer of “The History Boys” (despite mixed reviews in Blighty); “The Last King of Scotland” by Oscar winner (for docu “One Day in September”) Kevin Macdonald; Dench starrer “Notes on a Scandal,” directed by Richard Eyre; Andrea Arnold’s gritty-poetic Cannes prizewinner “Red Road”; and the Beatrix Potter biopic “Miss Potter” (even though helmer Chris Noonan is an Aussie and star Renee Zellweger is American).

Despite its Palme d’Or victory at Cannes in May, buzz for Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” may have waned too much by now, particularly since local reviews were no more than respectful, and Brit voters tend to be leery of Irish subject matter.

Although helmer Anthony Minghella has been consistently honored by BAFTA throughout his career, his London-set latest, “Breaking and Entering,” may be too small in scale to sweep up voters. Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi pic “Children of Men,” set in a futuristic U.K., unfolds on a broad canvas with a budget to match and lapped up stellar reviews, but may offer too bleak a vision to appeal to BAFTA’s oft-conservative tastes.

One wild card might be the controversy-reaping B.O. barnstormer “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” Its star, Sacha Baron Cohen, would be a bold and, some would say, highly deserving candidate for an acting prize. At least it would be a hoot to see Borat accepting an award onstage.

Traditionally, the Carl Foreman Award for special achievement by a British director, writer or producers in their first feature has almost always been awarded to helmers (such as Joe Wright in 2006 for “Pride & Prejudice”). Arnold, already an Oscar winner for her short “Wasp,” is the most obvious candidate this year for “Red Road.” Other possibles include helmers Tom Vaughan (“Starter for Ten”), Paul Andrew Williams (“London to Brighton”), Jan Dunn (“Gypo”) and Greg Hall (“The Plague”).

The supporting actress section could see recognition for newcomer Jodie Whittaker (“Venus”), but Frances de la Tour (“History Boys”) looks to be the early favorite.

As far as the men are concerned, this year may rep Peter O’Toole’s best chance of winning an actor prize in years for his turn in “Venus.” (O’Toole famously planned to turn down a chance to win a lifetime achievement Oscar because he felt he was “still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright.”) Leslie Phillips, O’Toole’s co-star in “Venus,” and the much-loved Richard Griffiths from “History Boys” are also in with a shout.

Other likely British bloke contenders, for either lead or supporting turns, include Toby Jones for “Infamous,” Ben Whishaw for “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” Bill Nighy for “Notes on a Scandal,” Cillian Murphy for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” Eddie Marsan for “Sixty Six” and Jude Law for “Breaking and Entering.” The currently ubiquitous James McAvoy, winner of last year’s Orange Rising Star Award, has a good chance of a nom for his anchoring perf in “Last King,” while it doesn’t hurt that he’s shown a lighter side in “Starter for Ten” and features in upcoming pics “Becoming Jane” and “Penelope.”

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