Ever since Charles Laughton nabbed an Oscar for “The Private Life of Henry VIII” 82 years ago, the Academy’s love affair with British cinema has been a loyal and devoted one, covering such RP-accented champs as “Hamlet,” “Chariots of Fire,” and “The King’s Speech.” This year, however, looks a little leaner than usual on U.K. possibilities: among the most-buzzed contenders, there’s no plummy prestige pic in the “Imitation Game” vein, while some of the likeliest Britpics might not seem that British to many viewers. (We’re not even talking about U.K. co-productions like Ang Lee’s U.S.-themed “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”)
Take “Florence Foster Jenkins” : This crowd-pleasing comedic biopic of history’s least-talented opera star is British through and through, from its BBC Films imprint to its veteran director, two-time Oscar nominee Stephen Frears. But the film’s entirely American story, and the presence of U.S. national treasure Meryl Streep in the lead, could put some off the scent. Anyway, this breezy arthouse hit ($27 million and counting), once dismissed purely as a performance vehicle for Oscar mainstay Streep, could charm enough voters to edge its way into the best picture race.
Facing greater odds is the more defiantly British “I, Daniel Blake,” a tear-jerking, politically impassioned welfare-state drama that earned 80-year-old Ken Loach, British cinema’s doyen of social realism, his second Palme d’Or at Cannes in May. Loach has never been recognized by the Academy before, and this small, scrappy pic will have to fight for voters’ attention when Sundance Selects releases it in the December prestige rush. If they watch their screeners, however, many will be moved.
Few would guess that the U.K.’s submission in the foreign-language film race is even part-British. A Sundance sensation and quite possibly the year’s standout horror film, Iranian-born director Babak Anvari’s smart, nerve-shredding debut “Under the Shadow,” seems very much the product of its Tehran setting. It faces an uphill climb in a category that rarely embraces genre fare, but this was a fresh, edgy selection on the Brits’ part.
Finally, they may be too low-profile and too offbeat to make a major dent in the Oscar race, but look out for two British-produced critical darlings elsewhere. Greek expat Yorgos Lanthimos’ surreal, strangely romantic comedy “The Lobster” could gain some notice for its decidedly original screenplay, or even in the Golden Globe comedy fields. Meanwhile, Andrea Arnold’s exuberant, unruly Midwestern road movie “American Honey” is likely to pop up on the U.K. precursor award circuit — yet another example of British cinema spreading its wings from the Masterpiece Theater template.