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The 2010 Bafta Race

The King’s Speech seems a natural for Bafta glory, but a bumper year for British film means it’s far from a one-horse race, reports Allan Hunter

The 6,500 members of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) have no obligation to vote for British contenders — but they do have a tendency to reward exceptional work from native talents. Best actor winners Colin Firth (A Single Man) and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), best actress winner Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake)  and  best picture choices such as 2007’s Atonement confirm the British Academy often diverges from the US Academy and chooses to honour its own.

Even before The King’s Speech led the nominations tally for the Golden Globes with seven nods, it seemed almost tailor-made to appeal to Bafta voters. The Royal connection has worked favourably in the past for Mrs Brown and The Queen; handsomely crafted period dramas have always found favour, from the glory days of Merchant-Ivory to The English Patient and Atonement; and the cast has a  strong Bafta pedigree, from Geoffrey Rush (four nominations, two wins), to Helena Bonham Carter (two nominations) and Colin Firth (two nominations, one win).

The King’s Speech also seems to be cannily following the template of Slumdog Millionaire’s success. Both films won the People’s Choice audience award at Toronto, staked their British presence with London Film Festival premieres and then triumphed at the Bifas with The King’s Speech winning five of its eight nominations.

The King’s Speech opens theatrically in the UK on January 7, 2011, perfectly timed to be fresh in the minds of Bafta members at a crucial point in the voting process. Director Tom Hooper and cast members have been on the campaign trail, with Colin Firth giving a Life in Pictures public interview for Bafta in the first week of December. Firth has the potential to become the first performer to win consecutive Bafta best actor awards since Rod Steiger in 1967 and 1968 (although he was “best foreign actor” — see box, over).

The quality of British productions over the past year means the Baftas are far from a one-horse race. Gareth Edwards’ low-budget feature Monsters first emerged from the pack at SXSW in March. Mike Leigh’s Another Year took the top prize at Cannes, while Toronto brought awards buzz to titles including The King’s Speech, Made In Dagenham — from Calendar Girls director Nigel Cole — Never Let Me Go and Peter Mullan’s Neds, which subsequently won best film and best actor at San Sebastian.

Mike Leigh has long been a Bafta favourite, with a string of nominations and two awards — best director for Vera Drake in 2004 and best screenplay for Secrets And Lies in 1996. Another Year has earned rave reviews and seems well placed for acting nominations for Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville and another Bafta favourite, Jim Broadbent (who has been nominated five times for film and television work and won best supporting actor for Moulin Rouge in 2001).

Leigh’s Bafta pull is not infallible, however, and the absence of a best actress nomination for Sally Hawkins for Happy-Go-Lucky was one of the shocks of the 2009 awards. Bafta voters may feel they need to make amends, perhaps with a best actress nod for Hawkins in Made In Dagenham; co-star Miranda Richardson is a likely supporting actress candidate for her performance as politician Barbara -Castle. Hawkins and Richardson have also been an active part of the Bafta campaigning, attending voter screenings in London.

Hawkins is only one of several performers in search of a first Bafta nomination. Despite a career spanning nearly two decades, Ewan McGregor has never been recognised by the Academy, and his best actor win at the European Film Awards might help put him in the frame for Roman Polanski’s The Ghost — even though co-star Olivia Williams seemed to gain the lion’s share of the critical notices and may have a better chance as a contender for best supporting actress.

There is no shortage of contenders for the Carl Foreman prize — a wide range of British film-makers made their mark with a debut feature in the past year, from Gareth Edwards with Monsters to Clio Barnard with The Arbor and Brian Welsh with In Our Name.

With so much on offer from established names such as Mike Leigh and Colin Firth, it remains to be seen how far Bafta will embrace the wave of British comedy talent moving into cinema with The Infidel, Cemetery Junction and Four Lions. Chris Morris may be the one to follow Armando Iannucci’s previous success with screenplay or Alexander Korda nominations for Four Lions.

The abolition of the UK Film Council may have tarred 2010 as a black year, but the Bafta contenders are a positive sign for UK film. There are a handful of films — The King’s Speech,Made In Dagenham, Monsters,Another Year, Neds— that could win nominations in multiple categories. There is also a strong selection of -candidates who could be honoured for their work in US films, from Andrew -Garfield’s supporting performance in The Social Network to Christian Bale’s compelling turn in The Fighter to Danny Boyle’s bravura direction of 127 Hours. It promises to be a good year for the Brits at the Baftas.

BATTLE OF BRITAIN

In the beginning, Bafta made some firm distinctions between celebrating British achievement and honouring work from the rest of the world. There were categories for best British actor and best foreign actor for instance, meaning the likes of Simone Signoret or Marcello Mastroianni were frequent winners alongside UK favourites such as Trevor Howard, Kenneth More or Rachel Roberts. These days all the main Bafta categories are open to every nationality.

The desire to honour British talent still remains, however, in the Alexander Korda Award for “outstanding British film of the year” and the Carl Foreman Award for “special achievement by a British director, writer or producer in their first feature film”. Recent recipients of the latter, named in honour of the Oscar-winning screenwriter, include Andrea Arnold (Red Road), Matt Greenhalgh (Control) and Steve McQueen (Hunger). It is decided exclusively by a jury and members of the Bafta Film Committee. 

The Alexander Korda Award, named in honour of the Hungarian-born producer and director, allows the Bafta membership to vote for 10 films in the first round. The nominations are then chosen by a combination of the vote and the Film Committee, with the winner decided by the Committee and a jury of industry figures.

The Korda Award has tended to be a focus of debate in recent years, particularly when a strong field of contenders has resulted in a British winner of the year’s best picture and a different title being judged the year’s outstanding British film. This happened at the awards in 2007 when The Queen was named best film but the outstanding British film was The Last King Of Scotland, and again in 2008 when Atonement won best film but This Is England won the Korda prize. Given the competing enthusiasm for titles such as The King’s Speech, Monsters, Another Year and Never Let Me Go, this is a situation that could arise again when the awards are presented on February 13.

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