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Bond vs. Hitchcock: Bracing for an iconoclash

BAFTA Preview

On the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise and the 90th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s first silent movie, arguably the two greatest icons of British cinema are going head to head at this year’s BAFTAs.

Half a century after “Dr. No,” the world’s most famous spy could finally be ready to come in from the cold at the British Academy Film Awards. “Skyfall” might be regarded as an underdog for the Oscars, but back home in Blighty, the film’s critical success, its creative pedigree and the history of the franchise make it a major threat.

Casino Royale” set the precedent in 2006, with no Oscar nominations but nine at BAFTA, including Daniel Craig getting the first ever nod for an actor playing 007. “Casino Royale” won only a solitary prize, for sound, but with U.K. critics hailing “Skyfall” as the best Bond ever, it looks poised to do much better.

That’s partly because “Skyfall” also feels like the most British Bond ever, with extended action in London followed by a climatic journey to Scotland which takes the franchise into a dimension — dramatically, emotionally and cinematically — where it has never ventured before.

Then there’s the cast with peerless BAFTA credentials. Aside from Craig, there’s a meatier role than ever for Judi Dench (10 previous BAFTA wins and 13 noms across film and TV, plus a fellowship) which almost amounts to a co-lead. There are key cameos from Ralph Fiennes (four noms and one win), Albert Finney (two wins, 11 noms and a fellowship) and youngsters Naomie Harris (a BAFTA rising star nominee) and Ben Whishaw (a TV nominee). One of BAFTA’s favorite Europeans, Javier Bardem (one win and one nomination), delivers a bravura villain.

“Skyfall” is also a homecoming for Sam Mendes: his first British film. He’s the first Oscar winner to direct a Bond movie, which shows not just in the performances but also in his choreography of action, cinematography (Roger Deakins looks red-hot for his fourth BAFTA) and production design.

Mendes has a checkered history with BAFTA. In 2000, when he had already won the Oscar a few weeks earlier, BAFTA twisted his arm to fly into London for the ceremony, only to make him sit and watch while “American Beauty” won virtually everything except director, which went to Pedro Almodovar. He hasn’t even been nominated since; a reconciliation is long overdue.

Hitchcock,” a drama by L.A.-based British director Sacha Gervasi about the making of “Psycho,” arrives at the BAFTAs without quite the same weight of five-star reviews, box office success and patriotic fervor. But the subject matter, along with the cast of Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren and Scarlett Johansson (who has received more love at the BAFTAs than the Oscars), are sure to get the interest of voters.

The Fox Searchlight pic also benefits from this year’s sustained and energetic campaign by the British Film Institute to remind everyone of Hitchcock’s greatness. That culminated with “Vertigo” toppling “Citizen Kane” from the top spot in the Sight and Sound all-time poll.

However, Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” may offer a stronger challenge to “Skyfall” for BAFTA’s hometown vote.

With its French story and Hollywood cast, “Les Miserables” doesn’t feel very British. The austere Hooper is more admired than liked in U.K. industry circles — he didn’t win director at BAFTA for “The King’s Speech.” But the globally blockbusting stage show was created in London, where it has run uninterrupted for 27 years, and the film was shot at Shepperton by British powerhouse Working Title Films.

Faced with these big-budget British contenders backed by Hollywood studios, this year’s challenge from the U.K.’s indie filmmakers feels relatively thin. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” will be pushing its BAFTA-friendly cast of veterans. “Anna Karenina,” “Shadow Dancer,” “The Angels’ Share,” “Quartet,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Hyde Park on the Hudson,” “Great Expectations,” “Ginger & Rosa” and “Song for Marion” will be angling for a shoal of nominations, but none has yet made a huge impact with critics or audiences.

On the quirkier fringes, aggressive campaigning will be needed to persuade the mainstream mass of BAFTA members to take note of the critically acclaimed “Sightseers” or “Berberian Sound Studio.” “Broken,” the top nominee for the British Independent Film Awards, won’t even get released in time for BAFTA qualification, because distrib Studiocanal knows it’s too small for BAFTA tastes.

Size and reputation matter at BAFTA. An arthouse movie with little crossover appeal is unlikely to figure strongly in the race. The 6,500 voters, half of whom are TV rather than film members, are swayed by reviews, familiar names, popularity, and whatever buzz is emerging from the other side of the Atlantic about the Oscar race.

With the Oscar race still looking unusually crowded, a large number of plausible American contenders will be pushing for a BAFTA boost. “Argo” went down a storm at the London Film Festival, while “The Master” and “Moonrise Kingdom” both clicked with U.K. audiences. “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln,” “The Silver Linings Playbook,” “Flight,” “The Impossible,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Django Unchained” are all yet to come. Smaller indies “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Sessions” will be relying on exceptional critical support to push them to forefront.

Of the main American Oscar candidates, only “Promised Land,” “Cloud Atlas” and “A Late Quartet” will be missing from the BAFTA race. They are not due to be released in the U.K. before the Feb. 8 cutoff date for qualification.

The French are a significant wild card this year, with “Amour,” “Rust & Bone” and “The Untouchables” all looking strong enough and popular enough to bust out of the foreign-lingo ghetto and into contention for the main awards. Watch for that Gallic trio in the best film, script and the acting categories.

Another dark horse is Peter Jackson, who won best film at BAFTA for both “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Return of the King,” so it’s impossible to count out “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” particularly given its largely British cast.

BAFTA Preview
Bracing for an iconoclash | Rules shakeup has stirring possibilities | Screener play sets up sizzling foreign fight

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