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BAFTA Favors Heavyweights Over Low-Budget Indies

It’s been 17 years since the BAFTA awards crucially shifted their place in the awards calendar. For decades, they’d taken place in the springtime, as a kind of quirky afterthought to the glossier Academy Awards, their voting only occasionally accounting for the trends set by other awards bodies: it was a time when films like “Jean de Florette” and “The Commitments” could emerge victorious in the top races, after sitting out the Oscars entirely.

In 2001, however, they moved back to February, preceding Oscar night by several weeks, and the game soon changed entirely: the BAFTAs joined the ever-expanding ranks of Oscar precursors, eventually changing even their branch-led voting system to align more with AMPAS rules. Their choices, in the process, have grown less singular too: In the last decade, 70% of BAFTA’s choices in the film, direction and acting categories have gone on to win the Oscar. Differences in collective taste may still emerge — the British and U.S. Academies haven’t agreed on a Best Film winner since “12 Years a Slave,” for example — but the same frontrunners, American more often than not, tend to rule the roost on both shores.

This year’s nomination slate, however, sees BAFTA claiming back its Britishness more defiantly than usual. A year ago, a single U.K. production, Ken Loach’s arthouse outlier “I, Daniel Blake,” cracked the Best Film lineup; this year, it’s dominated by homegrown fare. Certainly, a heavy presence was to be expected for Christopher Nolan’s war epic “Dunkirk” (eight nominations) — a robustly patriotic homecoming for the British blockbuster merchant after years in Hollywood — and British-Irish firebrand Martin McDonagh’s American-set but decidedly British-produced small-town tragicomedy “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (nine nominations). Both films have long been hotly fancied in the Oscar race, with the latter emerging as the one to beat following its emphatic triumphs at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors’ Guild Awards in January.

But the whopping nine-nod haul for Joe Wright’s booming Winston Churchill biopic “Darkest Hour” came as something of a surprise to onlookers. Its veteran star Gary Oldman may have been marked as the Best Actor frontrunner since the film premiered in Telluride last autumn, but it’s struggled to find traction in other categories with American awards bodies: Oldman aside, the Globes, guilds and critics’ groups largely passed on its old-school prestige. Not so BAFTA, which nominated it for Best Film, displacing a couple of the most heavily hyped U.S. contenders. Among those edged out: Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” whose absence in particular from the Best Director race, ruled once more by white males, furthered a narrative that has been a sore point all season.

The home advantage extended to the acting races, where nine of the 20 spots were taken by British or Irish performers, plus a handful of Americans in U.K. films: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell for “Three Billboards,” of course, but less predictably, Annette Bening for her otherwise little-buzzed turn in the modest Britpic “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” Wildcards don’t come more quintessentially English, meanwhile, than Hugh Grant, whose supporting nomination for dizzily broad comic work in “Paddington 2” blindsided many, not least because the film, a 2018 release Stateside, isn’t even Oscar-eligible. Sequels and family films rarely make much headway with snobbish industry voters, but Paul King’s London-set romp rode a wave of public and critical adoration to three major nominations.

Yet as the British studios celebrated their day in the sun, local indies continued to look in from the fringes. Despite vast critical acclaim, festival hype and healthy arthouse box office, titles like “Lady Macbeth,” “The Death of Stalin” and “God’s Own Country” were confined to BAFTA’s few British-only categories, not deemed good enough to play with the Hollywood heavyweights. The latter, it’s worth noting, beat “Three Billboards” to the top prize at December’s British Independent Film Awards: Is it the big-name American cred of McDonagh’s film that secured it nine nominations, while the Yorkshire gay drama managed only one? While the American Academy increasingly prioritizes low-budget U.S. independents — for the last four years, the same film has won Best Picture at both the Oscars and the Independent Spirit Awards — BAFTA continues to take a bigger-is-better view when it comes to its own product. It’s certainly been a banner year for U.K. cinema, but this year’s BAFTA slate only tells half the story.

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