LONDON — On paper, “Atonement” looks like the clear hometown favorite to flourish at this year’s British Academy Film Awards.
But with BAFTA, nothing is ever that simple.
Two years ago, director Joe Wright sniped from the stage when he accepted his award for “Pride & Prejudice,” chiding the voters for snubbing his star, Keira Knightley. It was a bit gauche and ruffled a few feathers at the time.
Though it seems unlikely BAFTA members will either remember or care when it comes to voting for “Atonement,” Brits are always uncomfortable about precocious success, and word of mouth around the U.K. film community isn’t quite as unanimous about the merits of “Atonement” as the critics have been.
Wright’s lush adaptation of Ian McEwan’s multigenerational novel certainly has a lot going for it. From the moment it opened the Venice festival to critical raptures, it established itself as the upscale Brit event movie of the year.
It’s an Oscar hopeful with a populist touch, grossing $25 million in the U.K. And it has an impeccable pedigree — produced by Working Title, written by Christopher Hampton, starring two of Blighty’s hottest young thesps (Knightley and James McAvoy), one of its grandest actresses (Vanessa Redgrave) and a winsome newcomer (Saoirse Ronan). And that’s not even to mention Romola Garai, who arguably gives the pic’s standout performance.
Wright has won two BAFTAs already in his short career (for TV serial “Charles II” and movie newcomer thanks to “Pride and Prejudice”) and been nominated three more times (best British film for “Pride and Prejudice,” best serial for “Nature Boy” and best short for “Crocodile Snap”).
But beware the backlash. Though the pic has plenty of admirers, particularly for its first section, debate within the industry has tended to focus on its flaws, rather than its strengths. For some, the famous five-minute tracking shot of Dunkirk beach is a breathtaking piece of authorial bravura by a remarkable young filmmaker; for others, it’s just showing off to no dramatic purpose.
Further, Wright’s supporters question the assumption that BAFTA favors British talent. After all, Knightley got nommed for an Oscar but not for a BAFTA in “Pride and Prejudice.”
In truth, the record books provide conflicting evidence. In the past 15 years, British movies have won for film nine times at the BAFTAs and four times at the Oscars. Brits have won director honors four times from BAFTA and twice from Oscar.
Yet the two directors who won the Academy Award — Anthony Minghella and Sam Mendes — didn’t actually win the BAFTA for best director in the same year, even though “The English Patient” and “American Beauty” did win best film.
Further, no British film has won the best film/director double since “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and Mike Newell managed it for Working Title way back in 1994. And even more confusingly, no movie has ever won best British film and best film, despite the many occasions when the best film winner has been British.
“Atonement” is sure to be nominated across the board. But the quirkiness of BAFTA means that the movie could just as easily win everything or nothing. If British voters really want to tease, they could name “Atonement” best film but overlook Knightley again. That would make for an interesting acceptance speech.