We should be justly proud of the British Academy film awards. This Sunday, for the 67th time in Bafta’s history, another round of those weighty theatrical masks will be handed out in London. Even if it rains (it always rains), the evening will be star-studded, high-powered and frock-tastic, providing an official appetiser for the award season’s main course, the Oscars. From the imposing grandeur of the 15 metre high proscenium arch at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden to the studied witticisms of host Stephen Fry, the ceremony could not be more British.
Which makes it a travesty to me that the bulk of the winners will inevitably be foreign. By which I mean American. Aside from two protectionist categories that ring fence homegrown talent - outstanding British film and outstanding British debut - our best must battle it out against the vast budgets and promotional might of the Hollywood dream factor. The studios may hammer out multimillion-dollar comic-book franchise blockbusters for 11 months of the year, but, just in time for prize giving season, they aggressively market “awards bait” pictures with no less industrial precision.
Just as I had no critical argument with the American films that dominated last year’s Baftas - Argo, Lincoln, Django Unchained - I applaud the edge-of-seat impact this year’s true-life maritime hijack thriller Captain Phillips and the funky 70s kitsch of American Hustle. From Martin Scorsese’s morally ambiguous caricature of a different kind of buster in The Wolf of Wall Street to Alexander Payne’s monochrome hymn to the recession-hit Midwest in Nebraska, the panoramic American experience is represented in all the big Bafta categories.
Even 12 Years a Slave, a powerful achievement by British director Steve McQueen, is a peculiarly American story, set and shot in Louisiana and predominantly funded by dollars. It’s hard to see what Bafta is covering here that the partisan American Academy isn’t.
In Bafta’s “safe place”, outstanding British film, the field is led by sci-fi thriller Gravity, claimed as “one of ours” due to the astonishing work of British effects house Framestore. But again, it’s an American story with American stars. The bulk of fellow nominee Saving Mr Banks takes place in Burbank, California, though, it’s led by our own Emma Thompson’s stunning performance. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a quintessentially South African story, albeit staged by a British director (Justin Chadwick).
Thank heaven then, for Philomena, The Selfish Giant and Rush in this category, although Rush is directed by Ron Howard, on loan from Hollywood.
British debut is an oasis of affirmation for Team GB, featuring among its five worthy nominees two modest films I particularly enjoyed last year, the cracking Northern-Irish punk-scene paean Good Vibrations, a UK/Irish co-production from directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, and Shell, a bleakly windswept Scottish indie from debutant Scott Graham. It’s great to see them shortlisted.
But this where I start to bemoan the British films missing from dispatches. Although the busy Steve Coogan is rightly nominated along with Jeff Pope for Philomena’s screenplay (also as producer in the best film category), how come his barnstorming Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is absent? A commercial and critical hit here - albeit one whose humour is unlikely to travel far - is it a casualty of Academy snobbery against comedy? This may explain the snub to The World’s End, too. And while we’re about it, The Look of Love, also starring Coogan as Soho pornographer Paul Raymond, is a fabulous British romp. Perhaps the insanely prolific output of director Michael Winterbottom puts him at a disadvantage with juries.
Talking of big names, Danny Boyle had a British film out last year, the art heist thriller Trance, starring James McAvoy, which seems to have escaped the Academy’s notice. So did Roger Michell (Notting Hill) and writer Hanif Kureishi for their charming late-night-middle-aged romance Le Week-end, with Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as a couple rekindling their relationship in Paris. McAvoy, who has earned his spurs in Hollywood, also starred in the glossy London action-fest Welcome to the Punch, follow-up to writer/director Eran Creevy’s lauded - and Bafta-nominated - debut Shifty. I might also mention McAvoy’s disturbingly brave turn in the Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth.
You would probably advise me to refocus my attention on the increasingly significant British Independent Film Awards, which each November darling mop up the films cruelly ignored by Bafta; in recent memory Broken, Berberian Sound Studio, Filth and two consecutive entries from Ben Wheatley, one of this country’s most head-spinning new film-makers: Kill List and Sightseers.
Talking of which, for my money (and I’m not a Bafta member so exert no influence), the biggest omission this year is Wheatley’s A Field in England, the eerie, avant-garde, £300,000-budget English Civil War psychodrama that made British film history in July when it was released in cinemas, on DVD, on demand and on the Film4 TV channel on the same day.
US critics enthused about the movie, and Variety called it a “defiantly unclassifiable cross-genre experiment”. That, to me, is the kind of film Bafta should be all about: inventive, personal, difficult, sonically arresting (award for best sound, anyone?). English to its very core and a credit to the nation.
And the award for least British film goes to…
The British Academy Film Awards Sunday, 9:00pm BBC1