This year’s Bafta nominees for British film — “Pride,” “Paddington,” “Under the Skin,” “’71,” “The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game” — showcase the sheer variety, range and intelligence of U.K. cinema in 2014.
That’s underlined by the exceptional quality of contenders that failed to make the cut — the likes of “Calvary,” “Locke,” “Belle,” “Testament of Youth,” “Starred Up” and, most controversially, “Mr. Turner.”
For all the considerable differences between them, in artistic ambition and commercial appeal, the six nominees share an underlying theme that sheds an intriguing light on the zeitgeist. They are all about misfits struggling to belong, and they ask acute questions about our capacity for empathy.
That echoes the anxiety about immigration and social cohesion that is dominating the U.K. political debate — a weighty subject addressed explicitly in the most populist of all the contenders, “Paddington.” It’s a giant stylistic leap from here to Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary “Under the Skin,” but a surprisingly small step in theme from the furry illegal alien in London to the alien in a fur coat in Glasgow, both yearning for human contact and acceptance.
And it’s not far from there to Alan Turing, isolated both by his genius and society’s punitive attitude toward his sexuality; to Stephen Hawking, a brilliant brain whose failing body threatens to cut him off from his wife and the world; to a young British soldier who sees the army as the family he never had, but finds himself alone and betrayed behind enemy lines in a civil war; and finally to a group of gays and lesbians finding an unlikely solidarity with striking Welsh miners.
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These are all complex stories that represent remarkable achievements by their producers. Each marries tricky material with unproven writers and directors, and most went through many twists and turns of development. The world wasn’t holding its breath for any of these movies to be made; it’s only the taste, skill and sheer persistence of the producers that brought them to fruition.
“Under the Skin” was first optioned in 2001, “Paddington” in 2007. Both “Paddington” and “The Imitation Game” were put into turnaround by Warner Bros. and reconceived for indie finance. “The Imitation Game” was supposed to star Leonardo DiCaprio, while “Under the Skin” had Brad Pitt and Charlize Theron. Colin Firth was the voice of Paddington until he was replaced by Ben Whishaw.
“The Imitation Game,” “’71” and “Pride” have rookie writers, and “’71” also has a debut director, Yann Demange. “Paddington” writer-director Paul King’s only previous feature credit was the micro-budget “Bunny and the Bull.” “Pride” marks the return of theater director Matthew Warchus to the bigscreen 16 years after his poorly received debut “Simpatico” — a remarkable act of faith by rookie producer David Livingstone, based on his love for Warchus’ stage musical “Matilda.” “Imitation Game” is Norwegian helmer Morten Tyldum’s first English-speaking movie. James Marsh is a brilliant doc director but had only two dramas to his name (“The King” and “Shadow Dancer”) before “The Theory of Everything.”
Glazer is the only acknowledged auteur among the nominees. Yet after “Sexy Beast” in 2000, his slow work rate and the mixed response to his 2004 “Birth” meant that he still had much to prove. Raising the coin for “Under the Skin” was an enormous challenge for producers Jim Wilson and Nick Wechsler, and radical script surgery was necessary to bring the budget down to a filmable level.
Demange is being hailed as the great British discovery of 2014. But let’s not forget who discovered him. Angus Lamont had the original idea for the story, and along with Robin Gutch of Warp Films, hired Scottish playwright Gregory Burke to write the script. It was a major achievement raising the $8 million budget for a Troubles drama to give this rookie director the chance to display his full range of talent.
“Paddington” bears the pawmarks of “Harry Potter” producer David Heyman’s legendary attention to detail and obsession with intelligent storytelling — qualities also on display in his “Testament of Youth.” “Pride,” with its cleverly modulated beats, inspired casting and commitment to emotional authenticity, suggests that Livingstone, a former marketing chief at Working Title, brings a similarly focused approach to the craft of producing. Working Title toppers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner continue to display their own smarts with the understated discretion of “The Theory of Everything.”
Actors and directors tend to get the glory, but these nominations are a welcome reminder that producers — generally the first on board and the last to get paid — are the bedrock upon which the success of the British film industry is based.