This year’s BAFTAs were probably the least tense in its entire history, with the success of The King’s Speech so certain that the bookies were probably paying people to put bets on Colin Firth to win a Best Actor award. Jonathan Ross’ jokes, mostly about stammering, mentioned few other films. Samuel L. Jackson’s pronouncement of the Best Film winner began with a distinct and slightly sarcastic chuckle. The recently abolished UK Film Council, which helped fund the film, got easily the biggest cheer of the night. And the whole evening took on an oddly relaxed vibe that allowed the pleasures of the occasion to really shine through. Rosamund Pike’s quite ridiculous gaffes as she presented the Best Original Screenplay (which the BBC gamely chose not to cut for the edited TV version of the event) didn’t ruin the competitive, anxious edge the event might have taken on, since the winner of the category was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
What could have been quite a tedious night was far more enjoyable than usual. But when every year the British film establishment chooses to elevate particular filmmakers and actors, it’s not ceremony we should be most concerned with. It’s seems that The King’s Speech has such a hold on audiences that the idea of a less well-known film winning instead of it can cause a bizarre, self-righteous indignation, and the British Academy’s ongoing choice to mirror the Oscar awards format (instead of a national ceremony of the kind used in France) means that when British film has had a good a year as 2010, we tend to put all of our eggs in one basket instead of spreading the love. The phenomenal production story of Monsters, the ingenious, thought-provoking comedy of Four Lions and the independent, attention-grabbing creativity of Exit through the Gift Shop have all been overshadowed by a well-crafted, theatrical period drama.
The BAFTAs present an award for Best Film and another for Best British Film. The King’s Speech was nominated in both categories, and won both trophies. This may not seem surprising, but it’s actually a reversal of the usual trend whereby a British film big enough to win at the Oscars wins the first but not the second, despite being nominated for the two of them. Slumdog Millionaire took the biggest prize of the night in 2009, but Man of Wire was the Outstanding British Film of the year. The same thing happened with Atonement/This is England the year before and The Queen/The Last King of Scotland the year before that.
A few of the seven successes of The King’s Speech could have gone elsewhere, and no one would have really minded – not that Danny Boyle and Chris Morris really cared about what happened to 127 Hours and Four Lions on the night. It’s interesting nevertheless to see that for all the adulation surrounding the movie, there still seems to be anxiety, when it comes to the film industry, about how this country feels about its artists. The one award that the film didn’t get was Best Director (it went to The Social Network’s David Fincher). Surprising, since it’s probably Tom Hooper’s work behind the camera that’s most responsible for the accessibility and emotional pull of the story, rather than the historically confused screenplay or the fairly predictable performances.
The Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema confirmed this, being awarded to the Harry Potter franchise in general. Stephen Fry provided a surprisingly heartfelt speech, echoing Emma Watson’s self-professed British pride in an earlier moment of the night, and was followed by a montage of clips and interviews in which one figure went so far as to applaud how the Harry Potter movies have created jobs.
The irony about all this is that whilst Harry Potter is certainly of British origin and of a recognizably British setting, the lavish blockbuster status of the saga makes it appear more Hollywood than Pinewood. This is the position that’s been argued by Bertrand Moullier and Ian Christie, co-authors of UKFC report Stories We Tell Ourselves: The Cultural Impact of UK Film 1946-2006. In other European countries, it’s actually directors like Boyle, Ken Loach and Stephen Frears who, whether we like or not, with Trainspotting and The Queen, represent what good “British film” consists of. Works like Mike Leigh’s Another Year (pictured) were what the British Academy gave little credit to in 2011. Now, the pressure is on Hooper to show us if the gambles that have been taken on the future of British directing will pay off.