LONDON — “Women in Film” wasn’t the official theme of last night’s London Film Festival awards dinner, but it may as well have been. Before any trophies were even presented at event, staged for the fourth year running at Whitehall’s grand Banqueting House, outgoing British Film Institute chairman Greg Dyke made a point of celebrating the contributions of female filmmakers to this year’s fest. It had, after all, opened with Sarah Gavron’s feminist historical drama “Suffragette” (and a surprise red-carpet demonstration by feminist action group Sisters Uncut).
Festival director Clare Stewart extended Dyke’s point, numbering the female directors nominated for awards that evening. By the end of the evening, four of them had triumphed in three of the night’s competitive categories — with a BFI Fellowship presentation to Cate Blanchett bringing the night to a rousing finish.
Australian docmaker Jennifer Peedom won the Grierson Award for best documentary, for her Everest-themed “Sherpa,” ahead of such veterans as Frederick Wiseman and Aleksandr Sokurov. Indian duo Shai Heredia and Shumona Goel won best short film for “An Old Dog’s Diary.” And in something of an upset, Greek writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s relatively under-the-radar “Chevalier” was named the best film of the festival, beating out the likes of Cannes sensation “Son of Saul” and iPhone-shot transgender phenom “Tangerine.”
Meanwhile, only one male filmmaker was honored, and for a female-fronted film at that. U.S. newcomer Robert Eggers took the festival’s most longstanding prize, the Sutherland Award for best first feature, for his Sundance-lauded New England horror tale “The Witch” — which A24 are releasing next February, dodging an awards season that likely wouldn’t make much room for this unnerving, unconventional chiller.
But the Sutherland is an auspicious honor in itself, with a pretty jaw-dropping list of previous winners that includes Yasujiro Ozu, Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kenneth Lonergan and Lynne Ramsay. While Eggers may have been the night’s lone male winner, Sutherland jury president Desiree Akhavan (director of 2014’s “Appropriate Behavior”) stressed the film’s “fresh, feminist take on a timeless tale.”
“Chevalier,” in contrast, reps a subtly female perspective on specifically male rivalries and insecurities. A cutting, discomfiting funny black comedy, Tsangari’s film follows a group of six Greek frenemies who, on an Aegean Sea yacht vacation, embark on an absurdly rigorous series of contests to determine the group’s consummate man. It’s daring, ruthless fare that split critical opinion (and pointedly won no prizes) when it quietly premiered at the Locarno fest in August. (I reviewed it favorably there.) It was a more low-key bow than that granted Tsangari’s previous film, 2010’s oddball coming-of-age drama “Attenberg,” which debuted in competition at Venice.
Yet while “Son of Saul” entered the night as most people’s tip to win the top prize, it’s hardly surprising that a smart, diverse jury comprising Christine Vachon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mabel Cheung and president Pawel Pawkilowski would zig rather than zag. Since its inception in 2009, London’s best film prize has largely gone to broadly approved arthouse hits: Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” and “Rust and Bone,” Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” and Pawlikowski’s own “Ida.”
Not since the Russian film “How I Ended This Summer” upset the apple cart in 2010 has the London jury gone in such a singular direction. It’s heartening to see them highlighting a worthy film that could really use the boost: This victory should help “Chevalier” in its hunt for international distribution. (It’s still up for grabs in the U.S. and U.K., among other territories.) As for its foreign-language Oscar chances, we’ll have to wait a year to find out: Greece submitted “Attenberg” in 2011, but Tsangari’s follow-up is released too late in its home country to qualify for this year’s derby.
Tsangari’s victory was a spectacular one, yet there’s no denying which woman ultimately owned the night. That would be Blanchett, who was in her usual graciously articulate, saltily funny form as she accepted her BFI Fellowship — a career achievement honor, though the actress admitted she’d never previously considered her own career in cumulative terms. “Thanks to the BFI for reminding me that I’m now rather long in the tooth,” she added tartly, after accepting the award from her “Lord of the Rings” co-star Ian McKellen. (McKellen, funnily enough, has yet to receive one.)
At 46, Blanchett is certainly on the younger end of the BFI Fellowship roll-call, which runs the gamut from Judi Dench to Martin Scorsese to Mike Leigh to Bette Davis — Davis, incidentally, being the first name Blanchett listed last night as a personal influence. (Her other inspirations, for the record, include Gena Rowlands, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Miss Piggy and the woman she’s slated to play in an upcoming biopic, Lucille Ball.)
Yet who could argue with the choice at this stage in Blanchett’s career? A lengthy clip reel, peppered with verbal tributes from Sally Hawkins, Todd Haynes, Shekhar Kapur and Richard Eyre, showcased the astonishing breadth and depth of her filmography over the past 18 years — one that has yielded two Oscars and six nominations, and a host of less-gilded performances that were no less worthy of consideration. (“Heaven,” “Coffee and Cigarettes,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley”… take your pick.)
At least one such Blanchett performance will get the Oscar shaft this year, thanks to a nonsensical Academy rule (discussed by Kris Tapley last month) that prevents actors being nominated twice in one category. As her two formidable leading turns in “Carol” and “Truth” — both gala selections at the London fest — go head-to-head, it’s anyone’s guess right now which one will win out; if I had my way, I’d cite her both and throw her a third nomination in the supporting category for her delicious scene-stealing in Disney’s “Cinderella” earlier this year. It’s been an extraordinary year for Blanchett, which is why the BFI’s presentation felt so smartly timed: honoring a career already rich with past work, yet still vigorously in its prime.
Blanchett made note of that past-and-present dynamic as she wrapped up her speech on a feminist note of her own, acknowledging the challenges of sustaining a career in an industry still biased against women over the age of 40. In her concluding acknowledgements, she dedicated her career to Working Title producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, thanking them for taking a chance on a little-known twentysomething from Down Under when casting “Elizabeth” in 1997. When the film took flight, she recalled, her husband Andrew Upton cracked that, as a woman in this business, she had no more than a five-year window in which to thrive.
“F— you, darling,” she purred from the stage. “I’m still here.”