Best of British at BAFTA

The BAFTAs are always a source of either nationalistic pride or bitter recriminations about the films that got away.

Andrew Clarke

The BAFTAs are always a source of either nationalistic pride or bitter recriminations about the films that got away. This year it is the turn of nationalistic pride to take centre stage as Arts Editor Andrew Clarke rejoices in the fact that, for once, we rewarded our own film-makers.

The razzamatz of the BAFTAs is over for another year but the feelgood factor remains. This year's BAFTAs was probably one of the most predictable but curiously enough also one of the most satisfying.

There may have been no great upsets but it also meant that, for once, the right films got the prizes.


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It was also a year in which British films and British talent got the accolades that they deserved.

It was no great surprise that the incredibly popular Slumdog Millionaire swept the board with a well deserved seven trophies. As the first awards were dished out at the start of the evening, you got a feeling that no-one else was going to get a look-in as Slumdog walked away with the majority of the technical and visual awards before the acting and directing categories were reached.

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What makes Slumdog's success all the more joyous is the fact that by Hollywood standards it is a small-scale production with no major stars and yet it has captured the imaginations of critics and audiences alike.

It tells the story of a young lad from the streets of Mumbai who wants to turn his life around by winning a fortune and the hand of his young love by appearing on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Slumdog Millionaire has done fantastically well because it has a story to tell - a story populated with identifiable characters that audiences can relate to. It is a film which has something to say rather than being a vehicle for a special effects department to string together a lot of explosions and computer graphics.

Slumdog Millionaire is a film with heart and this is the common link to all the award contenders this year. All the films are about story-telling, real people with real problems.

The Reader, Revolutionary Road, Doubt, The Changeling, Milk and The Wrestler are all about people, flawed people, who are trying to rise above the obstacles and difficulties which life has placed in their path.

These are not super-hero movies, these are not about mutants with strange powers who can use their abilities like a get-out of jail free card in a game of monopoly. These are movies which have something to say about the real world, about real people.

In The Reader Kate Winslet's character - an ordinary young German woman, who, caught up in the euphoria of Hitler's Germany makes the mistake of joining the SS, is later put on trial for war crimes. Explaining to the judge the choices she was forced to make about who lived and who died, she tries to explain how she tried to spare some and then she looks him straight in the eyes and asks him: “What would you have done?”

Of course, she is not only asking the judge she is asking all of us in the audience. This is the power these films have - they have the power to connect, a power to touch us in a way that pure entertainment films do not and this is the reason they are honoured.

Clint Eastwood's film The Changeling, charged with a career best performance from Angelina Jolie, spoke to the fear within all parents about what what would happen if their child suddenly went missing - and then doubles that with the fact that the authorities return the wrong child.

If Slumdog Millionaire was always going to be the runaway winner in the film and technical categories then the acting awards were always going to be extremely tough-going.

With no stars in Slumdog, this gave the established acting talent from other films a chance to grab some glory. But the four acting awards were all extremely close-calls. There as nothing much to choose between them. After her Golden Globe win Kate Winslet was always favourite for Best Actress for The Reader but Angelina Jolie probably ran her a close second. Although Meryl Streep should never be discounted probably not enough people had seen Doubt for her to mount a real challenge.

Mickey Rouke cemented his position as The Comeback Kid for his heartfelt performance in The Wrestler. He was always the hot favourite for this after he and the film starting picking up awards last autumn on the European film festival circuit. The movie industry loves a wayward son returning to the fold, particularly when they deliver a cracking acting job as Rouke does in this tale of a washed up wrestler trying to rescue his relationship with his daughter.

Another wayward son returning to the fold this year was Woody Allen who was honoured through a well-deserved acting award given to BAFTA favourite Penelope Cruz for his well reviewed comedy Vicky Christina Barcelona.

Like The Wrestler, Allen's latest has been well received on the festival circuit and gets a mainstream release from this Friday. It has been seen as a return to form for Allen who has been making films in Britain and Europe for past four years after funding dried up in the US following his messy split from Mia Farrow and his relationship with Farrow's adopted daughter Soon Yi Previn.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was probably the biggest loser of the night, winning only two technical awards, who - along with Frost/Nixon - would have expected to take home some major awards in any other year but this year the challenge from the Brits was just too great.

And it wasn't a case of the British being all nationalistic and honouring their own, all the homegrown award winners deserved their place on the winners' podium - as evidenced by the fact that the Oscar shortlist for Best film is identical to BAFTAs.

Back in the US, the campaign to get Benjamin Button the Oscar will now go into full swing, and it will probably work because Brad Pitt and David Fincher are both very well liked and it is a wonderfully quirky and extremely accomplished film. Oscar voters are very sentimental but you can't deny the fact that a small-scale British movie like Slumdog Millionaire and a talent Brit director like Danny Boyle can take on the might of Hollywood and triumph.

It's all down to great story-telling and great actors. It gives a wonderful feeling that British movies continue to work their magic across the world. But, we need to support our film-makers. Cinemas need to make a commitment to British cinema. It's crazy that Hunger, which won Steve McQueen the best debut feature BAFTA was only released to 19 cinemas or that The Reader was taken off at many screens after only one week - not allowing for an audience to build.

Audiences need to play their part too. Go out and see the films. Choose any of those on the shortlist they are all worth seeing and who knows what homegrown movies we will be rooting for next year.

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