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BAFTA contenders test Brit loyalties

Full menu of foreign options compete with Blighty titles

It’s been a strong year for U.K. cinema, offering the prospect of a lot of hometown winners at the British Academy Film Awards.

But despite the high profile of several British films during this kudos season, the Brits might not have it all their own way at the Royal Opera House on Feb. 13.

BAFTA voters are spoiled for choice between a bumper crop of local contenders and an equally compelling selection of American and other foreign movies with the right elements to appeal to British tastes.

Any race that involves Peter Weir, the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski, all proven BAFTA favorites, isn’t going to be a walkover for the home team.

This makes for an intriguing and unpredictable contest, which will provide a fascinating test for the popular perception that BAFTA has an ingrained bias toward British films and talent.

It’s easy to assume that this year’s awards will be dominated by those thoroughly English stories that have already been anointed by American pundits as serious Oscar candidates — notably “The King’s Speech,” “Another Year” and “Made in Dagenham.”

Their distributors on either side of the Atlantic will certainly be hoping that BAFTA is in the mood for a rousing night of patriotic flag-waving, to give these films momentum going into the final lap of the Oscar derby.

Yet they face a challenge from several all-American movies that embody exactly what the cine-literate Brits love most about Hollywood filmmaking at its most intelligent.

“The Social Network” is causing as much buzz in London circles as in Los Angeles. “Toy Story 3” proves once again that Pixar can do no wrong in British eyes. Scorsese’s lengthy residency at Shepperton shooting “Hugo Cabret” is helping keep his widely liked “Shutter Island” fresh in mind. “Black Swan,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Rabbit Hole” and “Blue Valentine” have all screened strongly to BAFTA members.

Then there are those Anglo-American hybrids which promise the best of both worlds, with U.K. elements that give them a bit of extra profile in the BAFTA race — the likes of Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours,” Chris Nolan’s “Inception,” Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go” and Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” shot in London with a Peter Morgan script.

Paramount is even pushing the British angle for “How To Train Your Dragon,” featuring a lot of Scottish accents and based on book by local writer Cressida Cowell, who was trotted out for a BAFTA Q&A.

Weir’s history with BAFTA, where he previously won best director for “Master and Commander” and “The Truman Show,” makes “The Way Back” a dark horse that could run more strongly in Blighty. Additionally, the Coens have a strong fanbase in the U.K. film industry after all those years associated with Working Title, so the late arrival of the all-American Western “True Grit” is eagerly anticipated.

And after leading the nominations at the European Film Awards, Polanski’s British-accented “The Ghost” (aka “The Ghost Writer” in the U.S.) can’t be counted out.

One or two foreign language films usually break out into the main race. Tilda Swinton’s bravura display of Russian-accented Italian makes “I Am Love” this year’s most obvious candidate to cross over. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and its star Noomi Rapace could also figure. BAFTA has a record of picking out foreign femmes, such as Marion Cotillard and Zhang Ziyi.

Finally, there are several U.K. titles off the Oscar radar that could yet make an impact at the BAFTAs, even beyond the reserved categories of best British film and outstanding British debut.

Judging from the British Independent Film Awards, these wild cards include “Four Lions,” “Monsters” and “Kick-Ass” (which all got best film nods ahead of “Another Year” and “Made in Dagenham”), and possibly even “Brighton Rock” and “The Arbor.”

Of course, if “The King’s Speech” ends up sweeping the board, this will seem like it was always a foregone conclusion. A classy period drama about a charmingly vulnerable British king, starring last year’s best actor and stirringly set during Blighty’s finest hour in World War II, certainly fits the stereotype of a big BAFTA winner.

But if BAFTA does favor British talent and films, it tends to do so selectively. Last year, “An Education” got eight BAFTA nominations against three Oscar nods, which seems to confirm a certain hometown favoritism. But “The Hurt Locker” still dominated both ceremonies.

The U.K. film industry prides itself on its international outlook and cosmopolitan tastes, which tend to be reflected in BAFTA’s choices. Some British filmmakers actually grumble that BAFTA doesn’t give them enough support and bows too readily to the Hollywood opinion-makers. A quarter of BAFTA voters are based in Los Angeles and New York, a mixture of British expats and American Anglophiles, although perversely this may incline them more strongly toward a nostalgic view of old Blighty than their London counterparts.

These countervailing forces of international pride and local prejudice are what give the BAFTAs their unique flavor, making this year’s contest more difficult than ever to call.

More stories from the BAFTA Preview:
BAFTA contenders test Brit loyalties | Random resumes among BAFTA up-and-comers | Financial impact of BAFTA nod grows | BAFTA streamlines foreign language competish

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