The British economy may be in crisis but the quality of British film-making has rarely looked healthier.
Over the course of 2008 every major festival boasted a British talking point, whether it was Sally Hawkins’ star-making performance in Happy-Go-Lucky at Berlin, the critical praise heaped on Hunger and Of Time And The City at Cannes or the emergence of the crowd-pleasing Slumdog Millionaireat Telluride and Toronto.
Add to the equation stellar US-UK collaborations such as Frost/Nixon,Revolutionary Roadand The Reader and it is clear British film-making is not just a major contender for Bafta glory on February 8 but for Golden Globes and Oscars too.
The astonishing range and diversity of British films is making the Bafta race particularly competitive in a year that also sees such praised US contenders as The Wrestler, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, Milk and The Visitor.
Festival acclaim and critical support suggests a number of British acting front runners in British films, from Hawkins to Michael Fassbender’s astonishing physical commitment to the role of Bobby Sands in Hunger and Ralph Fiennes’ witty, scene-stealing turn inThe Duchess.
Sentiment might also suggest a best supporting actor nomination for Dean Spanley’s Peter O’Toole. If Bafta voters are seeking a tale of hope in a time of gloom and recession, then they have an ideal candidate in Slumdog Millionaire. Its January 9 UK release date by Pathe leaves it poised to reap the benefit of Bafta endorsement.
It could well be the year of the double nominee among British performers. Kristin Scott Thomas is a potential double contender as best actress for her heartbreaking performance in I’ve Loved You So Long and best supporting actress for her frosty matriarch in Easy Virtue.
Emma Thompson could emulate that achievement as a best actress nominee for Last Chance Harvey and a best supporting actress challenger for Brideshead Revisited. Kate Winslet could wind up competing against herself for Revolutionary Road and The Reader, while Fiennes could trump them all with a triple nomination for The Duchess, In Bruges and The Reader.
The quality and breadth of work this year suggests high-profile names will wind up being disappointed and history shows British film-makers cannot take Bafta support for granted.
The voters have a reputation for proud partisanship that is not always born out by the facts. Julie Christie was the sentimental favourite last year for her performance in Away From Her but it was Marion Cotillard who won the best actress mask. Atonement may have been named best picture in the same ceremony but that was one of only two wins from 14 nominations.
Hitting the campaign trail
While the economic crisis might have been expected to make a Bafta campaign something of a luxury this year, on the evidence of screenings, trade advertising and DVD screeners some companies appear to be taking a robust approach to their Bafta push.
Warner Bros offered Bafta members a choice of DVD or Blu-ray screeners. Pathe sent out the first DVD of Adulthood and has been maintaining high-profile advertising for titles such as Hunger, The Duchess and Slumdog Millionaire.
‘Our campaigning is always well targeted and we are very conscious of our spending,’ says John Fletcher, Pathe’s managing director of distribution.
‘We feel we have to try and tick all the boxes. It’s such a diverse group of people you have to get to. Trade ads are like a call-to-arms, a reminder for them to see the films. We try to screen a film as much as we can, not just in London but in Cardiff and Glasgow as well. We try to get to as many voters as we can.’
There is general agreement that Bafta makes the campaigning process as painless as possible. The organisation has a reputation for integrity and a willingness to listen to feedback from distributors.
This year, the date of the first-round voting was altered to give later releases including Benjamin Button and Australia a better chance of being seen by more of the membership. Bafta also allows distributors to dispatch retail DVDs to members rather than having to go to the expense of creating DVDs exclusively for Bafta members.
There is also a consensus on the unpredictability of Bafta voters and a sense of independence that means any film has a chance.
‘The Bafta membership tend to be more risk-positive in many respects,’ suggests Sam Nichols, managing director of Momentum Pictures, the UK distributor of Happy-Go-Lucky, Milk and Defiance. ‘I love the fact the Bafta membership can choose the underdog that deserves recognition and that’s really what any awards should be doing.
‘Sometimes it’s not about the obvious titles or the money thrown at it. Control made waves last year and got a lot of attention. They reward quality above all else.’