LONDON — The British Academy Film Awards have a contradictory reputation for being biased toward Brits, in thrall to Americana, obsessed with the Oscars and sweet on foreign-language auteurs.
This year’s BAFTA nominations prove that it’s possible for all those things to be true at once.
Only BAFTA would lavish 14 nods on Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” waving the Union Jack for country houses, stiff upper lips, suppressed passions, good old class warfare and brave chaps dying at Dunkirk.
But it was equally obvious that British voters would go for “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” with nine mentions apiece. Both offer American auteur cinema at its best, with grand universal themes and mythic landscapes, and both widely are touted as Oscar front-runners.
The best film, director, script and actor nominations for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others” confirm BAFTA’s well-
attested openness to subtitled drama, especially when already sanctified by an Oscar victory.
More of a surprise on the best film list is the presence of “American Gangster,” a well-made but hardly groundbreaking work largely ignored in the Stateside kudos races. Still, its epic aspiration to make a statement about America’s dark side clearly plays well with BAFTA voters. And don’t forget that it’s directed by a fellow countryman, Ridley Scott — albeit one who’s not popular enough in his homeland to make the director shortlist ahead of another, better-loved local, Paul Greengrass for “The Bourne Ultimatum.”
Like “Gangster” with its five BAFTA noms, “Bourne” got six nods despite having been largely absent from the U.S. awards season. Thus BAFTA defies national stereotypes by proving far less snobby about superior mainstream Hollywood drama than some American voters seem to be — at least if it’s directed by Brits.
BAFTA’s natural penchant for celebrating British achievement often seems to find its clearest expression in the supporting actress category, which this year is given over entirely to “locals” — counting, as people tend to, the Australian Cate Blanchett and the Irish Saoirse Ronan as honorary Brits, along with Tilda Swinton, Kelly Macdonald and Samantha Morton.
On the other hand, BAFTA, like most foreign audiences, doesn’t really get the quirky indie Sundance thing, even if “Little Miss Sunshine” managed a surprise best film nod last year. Under the circumstances, “Juno” did well this year to get mentions for Diablo Cody’s script and Ellen Page’s performance, but probably suffered from a low media profile in Blighty, where it doesn’t get released until Feb. 8. Cody looks like a real prospect to win.
“The Lives of Others,” with five nods, isn’t the only foreign-language pic to break out of the “not in the English language” ghetto. “La Vie en rose” actually got more nominations — seven, including Marion Cotillard for actress.
But “Lives of Others” is poised to win against its competitors for best film not in the English language. That’s simple BAFTA mathematics. This year, for the first time, the entire membership will vote for the winner, and participants have already revealed their verdict on the superiority of “The Lives of Others” by nominating it for best film.
Julie Christie will strive to cash in on the “grand British dame” vote to win for actress, although Cotillard could run close. Daniel Day-Lewis looks strong for actor despite British affection for George Clooney, Viggo Mortensen and James McAvoy, and the possibility of a posthumous sympathy vote for Ulrich Muehe.
American observers might assume that the hometown vote will guarantee “Atonement” to win for film. So it might. “Atonement” has its skeptics in Blighty, but it clearly struck a chord with the wider BAFTA membership, judging not only by its 14 nominations but also by the deeper voting patterns so far.
On the other hand, even if “American Gangster” and “The Lives of Others” look like outsiders, Wright’s period romance faces a stiff challenge from “No Country” and “There Will Be Blood.” The “No Country” Coen brothers have a strong British fanbase (coincidentally having made many previous movies at Working Title), while “Blood” is supercharged by that Day-Lewis performance. Fans of “Atonement” are hoping the vote for violent masculine Americana will be split, allowing Wright a clear run through the middle.
In truth, anything could win. That’s the joy of BAFTA — it’s utterly predictable, but only in hindsight.
What: Orange British Academy Film Awards
When:Feb. 10, 7 p.m. GMT
Where: Royal Opera House, London
U.S. broadcast: BBC America, 6 p.m. EST/3 p.m. PST (delayed)
Top nominees: “Atonement” (14), “No Country for Old Men” (9), “There Will Be Blood” (9)