'Atoment' wins best picture in London

Love it or loathe it, the five-minute tracking shot on Dunkirk beach is the pivotal scene in Joe Wright‘s “Atonement.”

The evacuation of Dunkirk, a moral victory snatched from the jaws of a devastating defeat, is also an apt metaphor for the experience of Wright and his Working Title producers at the British Academy Film Awards Feb. 10.

Like the British Expeditionary Force heading for France in 1939, “Atonement” sailed into the BAFTAs with 14 nominations and the hopes of the nation behind it. But after one early win for production design, its troops were routed in battle after battle.

By the time “This Is England” was named best British film, and the Coens had pipped Wright for director, the biggest humiliation in BAFTA’s history looked on the cards.

No wonder, then, that when Kevin Spacey opened the best film envelope and uttered the word “Atonement,” the gasp of shock from the winners was echoed by a wider exhalation of relief around the Royal Opera House, even from those who hadn’t voted for the film.

“I’m glad they won,” confided a rival British producer later. “It would have been too awful otherwise. But I did enjoy watching their discomfort.”

Make no mistake, if Working Title had left with just one craft award for “Atonement” (along with nothing for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”), it would have been a dark night for BAFTA and a terrible own goal by the U.K. film community — a very public rejection of the company that has been its most successful global champion for nearly a quarter of a century.

In the end, though, the best film triumph for “Atonement” was more credible for being hard won; and BAFTA voters proved that their support for British talent is thoughtful and discriminating, not merely chauvinistic and automatic.

In fact, the wide spread of the awards meant that almost everything got its due. That’s a result of BAFTA’s complex, three-stage voting system, which mixes membership, chapter and jury votes and virtually guarantees that nothing can ever sweep the board.

This year, even the five awards entirely decided by the whole membership — best film and the four acting prizes — went to five different movies, only the second time that has happened in two decades.

Marion Cotillard‘s win for actress in “La Vie en rose” against hometown favorite Julie Christie was widely regarded as a surprise. But this falls into the category of predictable in hindsight. “Away From Her” had only one entry in the longlists after the first round of voting, when each section is reduced to 15 contenders, whereas “La Vie en rose” showed strongly across the board, evidence of much deeper support for the movie.

The French pic was the biggest victor on BAFTA night, also taking the prizes for makeup and hair, costume and music. Yet as these winners trooped up to accept their masks, the biggest surprise was that they all turned out to be Brits. Presumably the juries and chapters that decided those awards knew this. Whether it influenced their choice is impossible to know. But if there was an overall theme to this year’s BAFTAs, it was the celebration of British talent working beyond borders.

Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood” and Tilda Swinton in “Michael Clayton” were honored for playing Americans in very American movies. Roger Deakins won for shooting Texas in “No Country for Old Men,” and Ronald Harwood for his French script of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

BAFTA also honored the British f/x team behind New Line’s “The Golden Compass” — and in a mirror image, the American editor and the multi-national sound team for the Paul Greengrass actioner “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

This has a political dimension. Several government ministers and officials attended the awards. Let’s hope they noticed. The most negative aspect of the U.K.’s new tax credit is that it only applies to work done within Britain, which discourages the great tradition of British talent travelling abroad to work on co-productions such as “La Vie en rose.” A lobbying effort is under way to relax this restriction, which threatens the deeply engrained internationalism that is the very essence of British film culture, as epitomized by this year’s BAFTAs.

Dunkirk was, after all, only a temporary retreat into the U.K.’s island fortress, to gather strength for a much greater victory overseas.

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