Revamp Reinvigorates BAFTA Awards

Guy Lodge
·9-min read

FILM

In the one category in which the nominees were determined by the entire BAFTA membership, rather than individual chapters or select juries, more conventional wisdom prevailed than in the surprise-filled acting and directing races. Four of the nominees here have featured heavily in the U.S. awards race thus far. Chloé Zhao’s stirring docufiction “Nomadland” has been viewed for months as the season’s clear frontrunner, and maintains that status here with a field-leading seven nominations (a total matched only by British comingof-ager “Rocks,” which curiously didn’t even crack the best film longlist). Aaron Sorkin’s all-star courtroom drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” generally seen as “Nomadland’s” closest competitor, also cracks the list, but with only three nods overall. For the remaining three slots, BAFTA voters honored their own: Emerald Fennell’s spiky feminist black comedy “Promising Young Woman” made it in, matching the enthusiasm shown by American awards groups for this U.K.-U.S. co-production, as did Florian Zeller’s effectively Anglicized stage adaptation “The Father.” The final British nominee was slightly less expected. Kevin Macdonald’s powerful Guantanamo drama “The Mauritanian” was low on many pundits’ radars before Jodie Foster’s shock Golden Globe win for the film; with five nominations overall, the Brits responded to the late-arriving title in a big way. Still, few expect any of the homegrown contenders to upset Zhao’s quiet juggernaut, which evidently has the broadest support across BAFTA branches.

DIRECTOR

Here’s where things start to get interesting. BAFTA was looking to shake things up in this category in particular, and not just by handing over nominating duties to a small jury: at the long-listing stage, the system was altered to ensure an equal number of male- and female-directed films on the list. What they ended up with, however, was more than parity. Shattering all records, four of this year’s six director nominees are women, with Zhao once more leading the pack. As the only nominee whose film is also up for best film — a disparity that indicates the gulf in sensibility between BAFTA’s general membership and their chosen juries — she’s the heavy favorite to prevail here. For most of her competitors, the nomination is a startling win in itself. Australian newcomer Shannon Murphy had hitherto been little discussed for her fresh, inventive direction of the sharp-edged teen romance “Babyteeth”; ditto Bosnian helmer Jasmila Žbanić for her devastating genocide drama “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” which until now had been confined to the foreign-language race. British director Sarah Gavron’s inclusion for “Rocks” is less out of left field, given the film’s healthy overall showing, but still a bracing choice. Even the two male nominees are hardly obvious establishment names: elbowing out the likes of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, Lee Isaac Chung racks up another key nod for his well-loved Korean-American immigrant saga “Minari,” while Danish auteur Thomas Vinterberg’s nomination proves the crossover reach of his tragicomic alcoholism tale “Another Round.” Together with Žbanić, their nominations make for a 50% non-English-language field in this category: another barrier broken.

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ACTRESS

BAFTA’s all-white slate of acting nominees last year was the scandalous trigger for the body’s dramatic overhaul of the voting system — which has, sure enough, yielded very different, and far more diverse, results this year. If Frances McDormand’s world-weary anchoring of “Nomadland” and British star Vanessa Kirby’s emotive tour de force in “Pieces of a Woman” were expected nominees (both having hit every major precursor of the season so far), few could have predicted that Carey Mulligan and Viola Davis would fail to join them. In their place are four Black actors who have otherwise received little attention in this year’s awards race — or last year’s, in the case of Alfre Woodard. Her shattering, career-best turn as a conflicted prison warden in “Clemency” was overlooked for an Oscar last year, only to receive a second wind of critical appreciation when the film received a belated U.K. release in the summer. Writer-director-producer-star Radha Blank didn’t even get an Independent Spirit nomination for her fierce, funny performance in “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” making BAFTA’s recognition all the more sweetly surprising; British-Nigerian star Wunmi Mosaku (best known to U.S. viewers for “Lovecraft County”) won the British Independent Film Award for her subtle turn in Netflix’s arthouse horror “His House,” but wasn’t expected to prevail against bigger names and genre bias. The wild card to watch, however, may be 18-year-old Londoner Bukky Bakray, who makes an irresistible debut as a streetwise high-schooler forced to grow up too fast in “Rocks.” Gavron’s crowd-pleasing film is picking up steam at just right time, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Bukray pip apparent frontrunners McDormand and Kirby to the post.

ACTOR

If the actor race didn’t throw up quite as many surprises as its female counterpart, it still added a welcome underdog or two to a field of more established favorites. Aside from an Independent Spirit nomination, young Indian actor Adarsh Gourav hadn’t previously picked up much traction for his charismatic turn in Ramin Bahrani’s lively literary adaptation “The White Tiger.” Tahar Rahim had only a Golden Globe nod to show for his pains as persecuted Guantanamo prisoner Mohamedou Ould Salahi in “The Mauritanian” — but as the furious heart of a film BAFTA voters clearly loved, it’s no surprise to see him here. Mads Mikkelsen’s terrific performance as a teacher-in-crisis in “Another Round” has been much championed by critics, though BAFTA is the first major voting body to take notice. Still, expect this to be a fight between the other three nominees. Voters may well add to the vast pile of posthumous honors for Chadwick Boseman and his dynamic work in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” though the film’s weak showing in other categories suggests it resonated less with BAFTA voters than with their American peers. If so, either of the two Brits in the race could swoop in: Anthony Hopkins, for wrenchingly playing the agony of dementia in “The Father,” or Riz Ahmed, whose electrifying performance as a hearing-impaired rocker in “Sound of Metal” is complemented by ace work in British film nominee “Mogul Mowgli.” Voters may well want to recognize a banner year for the actor.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Like the leading actress race, this category pits two much-laureled, season-long favorites against four less-celebrated outsiders: the outcome is hard to call. Bulgarian revelation Maria Bakalova has won the lion’s share of major critics’ awards for her fearless, Rudy Giuliani-baiting comic partnership with Sacha Baron Cohen in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”; it’s a performance head-turningly novel enough to prevail here too, though the film has no other BAFTA nominations. In that case, perhaps Yuh-jung Youn’s beguiling turn as a quirky grandmother in “Minari” is where BAFTA voters will concentrate their support for a film with six nods overall. Like her co-star Bukky Bakray in the actress race, teenage British Independent Film Award winner Kosar Ali is not to be underestimated for her sensitive, mature best-friend turn in “Rocks”; meanwhile, voters checking out “Judas and the Black Messiah” on the strength of Daniel Kaluuya’s buzz may come away impressed by the steely power of his onscreen partner Dominique Fishback, surprisingly unrecognized by previous major precursors. Irish rising star Niamh Algar is a gutsy presence in the tough-minded crime drama “Calm With Horses,” while British actor Ashley Madekwe (largely active in U.S. TV in the past decade) plays strikingly against type as a drug-runner’s overwhelmed mother in “County Lines” — surprisingly, the only nomination for a film many hoped would show up in the British film and British debut categories.

SUPPORTING ACTOR

Of all the acting races, this one seems the most straightforward to handicap: it would be a surprise to see anyone but local son (and Golden Globe winner) Daniel Kaluuya take the win for his galvanizing portrayal of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Kaluuya won BAFTA’s public-voted Rising Star award three years ago; a win here would allow voters to make good on that endorsement, while contributing to the actor’s growing Oscar momentum. His fellow nominees are an eclectic selection. While Leslie Odom Jr. has received multiple plaudits for playing Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami” (earning Regina King’s film its solitary BAFTA nod), veteran thesp Clarke Peters’ performance in “Da 5 Bloods” has hitherto been largely overlooked in favor of his co-star Chadwick Boseman. Critics’ favorite Paul Raci makes a welcome appearance here for his wise, grounding work as a deaf counselor in “Sound of Metal,” as does Irish star Barry Keoghan, balancing out his upcoming blockbuster turns in “Eternals” and “The Batman” with a ferocious, offbeat appearance in “Calm With Horses.” If anything can unseat Kaluuya, it’s the “awwww” factor of 8-year-old Alan S. Kim, a winsome surprise nominee for “Minari,” but don’t count on it.

FILM NOT IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

BAFTA’s titling of this category may sound awkward, but it’s certainly clear — sidestepping any potential controversies over eligibility and inclusion. While “Minari’s” categorization as a “foreign-language” feature in the Globes prompted heated objections, the U.S.-produced, Korean-language film is fair game here for a British awards ceremony. Lee Isaac Chung’s film will likely be “Another Round’s” closest challenger for the win here, though as the only nominee with directing, writing and acting bids, Thomas Vinterberg’s film may have a very narrow lead. Don’t count out “Quo Vadis, Aida?” either: Jasmila Žbanić’s stunning director nomination will draw many post-nomination eyeballs to a film with raw, lingering emotional impact. Probably out of the running are the two contenders with no nominations outside this category, though they round off a fine field: veteran helmer Andrei Konchalovsky’s punchy historical drama “Dear Comrades!,” which matches Žbanić s film as an unflinching portrait of an Eastern European massacre, and Ladj Ly’s scorching, socially conscious police thriller “Les Miserables,” which scored an Oscar nomination last year.

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