THE LONG SHOT: British reserve

Posted by · 8:07 pm · October 28th, 2010

“The British are coming!” crowed screenwriter Colin Welland from the Oscar stage in 1982, hoisting aloft his just-awarded awarded statuette for “Chariots of Fire” – and anticipating one of the bigger upsets in the history of the Best Picture race, as the modest British sports drama upended Warren Beatty’s grand political epic “Reds.”

His rallying cry was both premature and behind the beat. Welland may or may not have been aware that the Brits had crashed this particular party several decades previously. In 1948, Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” became the first non-US production to land the Academy’s top prize, while the 1960s were something of a golden period for England at the Oscars: while films like “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Tom Jones” and “Oliver!” emerged triumphant, so many Brits vacuumed up the acting prizes that Hollywood industry gossips – the bloggers of yore – began to complain. “It’s not fair,” whined Hedda Hopper. “The weather’s so foul on that tight little isle of theirs, that to get in out of the rain, they gather in halls and practise ‘Hamlet’ on each other.”

But Welland’s promise of a similar period of ubiquitous Brititude was kept only in fits and starts: Richard Attenborough, Ben Kingsley and “Gandhi” may have ruled the roost the following year, but it would be a whole quarter-century before another predominantly UK production (and coincidentally, also one with an Indian bent) took the top prize. In the early 1990s, Limey actors enjoyed a four-year run of wins in the lead acting races – from Daniel Day-Lewis through to Emma Thompson – only for their luck to dry up until Helen Mirren initiated another mini-streak 14 years later. “The British are coming… for occasional visits,” might have been a more accurate boast, if not quite as rousing.

This year, however, the Brits can be forgiven for feeling quite bolshy as the season fires up. Springing from what has been a more artistically robust year than usual for the UK film industry – albeit mostly for scrappy independent fare that will barely catch US viewers’ (much less voters’) attention, from Chris Morris’s “Four Lions” to Peter Mullan’s “Neds” – is a potential trio of higher-profile Best Picture contenders, representing three very different facets of British cinema.

The only certain nominee among the three is also the most old-school. Period royalty biopic “The King’s Speech” is genteel, prettily mounted and exactingly acted: heritage cinema of the variety that people are quick to label “Oscar bait,” though the truth is that voters are quicker to hand such films the nomination than the win. I discussed the Academy’s recent inclination toward contemporary stories in a previous column, but a glance down the list of Best Picture champs reveals fewer posh-accented costume dramas — or “royalty porn” outings — than you might expect, while wins for “Tom Jones” and “Shakespeare in Love” suggest the Academy does like corsets paired with some comedy. That, perhaps, is an even better omen for “The King’s Speech” (which, while ostensibly a light drama, gets audiences chuckling) than its noble subject.

If I just called “The King’s Speech” light, then another period piece in the running, Nigel Cole’s chipper fact-based Britcom “Made in Dagenham,” is a veritable helium balloon. But following in the grand British tradition of upbeat working-class comedies that touch gently on social injustices and prejudices — two notable recent examples, “The Full Monty” and “Billy Elliot,” finding many fans within the Academy — the film fiddles with the balance slightly by adding composite biopic and Big Issue elements to the formula. That could strengthen the film’s appeal to fun-wary voters, who could bolster its more populist fanbase if (and it’s a big if) the film proves even a specialty-scale crowdpleaser upon its US release.

Covering opposite ends of the class spectrum, “The King’s Speech” and “Made in Dagenham” nonetheless occupy the same side of the coin: both are old-fashioned, middlebrow entertainments that present a fairly romanticized, rousing snapshot of their countrymen. Compare Tom Hooper’s film, which hinges on the idea of a royalist British public pinning all its hopes on their monarch, to the 2006 Best Picture nominee “The Queen,” which more sourly details the dissipation of the country’s belief in the Royal Family as a national institution, and one begins to see the argument for labeling the former “Britfilm for America.”

Something similar could be said for “Made in Dagenham,” which irons out the suffering and squalor endured by the council estate-dwelling sector of the population to this very day. This is Britain as she likes to present herself to the world, rather than as she is (or was).

For that, we have the reliably astringent Mike Leigh, whose witty, but often chillingly bleak, character drama “Another Year” distinguishes itself from its compatriots in the race by being contemporary-set, an individual auteur work and a bona fide art film — as opposed to merely a high-end prestige product. That first distinction is a crucial one. Though the film operates in Leigh’s trademark mode of heightened realism, one that tends to aggravate as many UK viewers as it attracts, it engages directly with everyday concerns of today’s average Briton: families, broken and otherwise, the pursuit of companionship and the terror of not finding it, class friction, substance abuse, death.

Like Leigh’s previous film, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Another Year” portrays happiness — as maintained by the central couple in the film’s ensemble — as a rare, jewel-like commodity in a London teeming with loneliness and insecurity. That’s rather an opposing read to the swelled-heart, we-shall-overcome patriotism espoused in the finale of “The King’s Speech” (which, if I may draw a remote Oscar parallel, is perhaps more this year’s “Mrs. Miniver” than anything else) and certainly not the type of British study that has ever risen to the top in the Best Picture race.

But if recent triumphs for the likes of “Crash,” “No Country for Old Men” and “The Hurt Locker” arguably point to an Academy more preoccupied than usual with issues of absence and uncertainty, perhaps “Another Year,” dark horse that it is, is the one title in this year’s Brit Pack that matches the voters’ mood best of all. And if Mike Leigh were to join the all-but-inevitable Colin Firth in this year’s winners’ circle (if only for that Best Original Screenplay award he’s long been owed), we might be able to adjust Colin Welland’s cheer once more. The British are not only coming, they’re coming from very different places.

Guy’s Oscar Predictions

[Photos: Sony Pictures Classics and The Weinstein Company]

→ 18 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Long Shot

18 responses so far

  • 1 10-28-2010 at 8:42 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    “Heightened realism”. I think that was how you described Picnic. I’m guessing that means Another Year is probably not for me.

  • 2 10-28-2010 at 8:51 pm

    Angry Shark said...

    oh man, if The King’s Speech is this year’s Mrs. Miniver in any way, I’m gonna end up being a radical partisan against it in December. I really don’t want to have a film to hate, honest. Avatar took so much out of me. :(

  • 3 10-28-2010 at 8:52 pm

    Angry Shark said...

    and just in case it wasn’t clear, I hate Mrs. Miniver. Saw it on PBS a few years ago, and only watched it because I have a hard time thinking black & white dramas are bad while I’m watching them. To be compared to Mrs. Miniver is a grave insult, in my book.

  • 4 10-28-2010 at 11:45 pm

    Glenn said...

    I’ve been joking a bit lately about what my local Australian media would if Kidman/Rush/Weaver/Weir all got nominated. They’d have a field day of patriotism, throwing the word “our” in front of their names (“our Jacki Weaver”, “our Nicole Kidman” as if we’ve forgotten) and saying it’s a new dawn and all that mumbo jumbo. Not to mention “The King’s Speech” is produced by an Australian and kinda somehow but not technically acts as a UK/Aus co-production.

    Is the UK the same or are they used to it enough to have it barely rate a mention?

  • 5 10-28-2010 at 11:48 pm

    parker said...

    “Gandhi” may have ruled the roost the following year, but it would be a whole quarter-century before another predominantly UK production (and coincidentally, also one with an Indian bent) took the top prize

    How is “Shakespeare In Love” not predominantly a UK production?

  • 6 10-29-2010 at 12:40 am

    Rob Licuria said...

    Guy, great article!

    Glenn: The Kings Speech is definitely an Aus/UK co-production. 2 of the likely 3 producers that would be up for Best Picture are Australians. And it’s co-financed by an Australian production company. Just sayin’

    There’s even some speculation that Tom Hooper has dual Aus/Brit citizenship. No idea if that’s true or how one would even confirm that bit of trivia. 

    Nothing wrong with a bit of patriotism ;)

  • 7 10-29-2010 at 1:04 am

    Everett said...

    Watch Another Year win Best Picture. Just watch it.

    It all comes back to Another Year. I can fucking feel it.

    Let’s just sit back and watch it happen.

  • 8 10-29-2010 at 1:55 am

    Manuel L. said...

    Wasn’t The Last Emperor also a mostly British production? Or is it considered Italian?

  • 9 10-29-2010 at 1:55 am

    PJ said...

    “Another Year” is intriguing me more than “Made in Dagenham”, although I sincrerly hope Sally Hawkins gets the recognition she desrves. Incidentally, I’m about to start watching “Happy-Go-Lucky”, so more how-the-hell-did-she-not-get-nominated ruminating will follow, but hopefully not in preparation for next January as well.

  • 10 10-29-2010 at 4:01 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Parker: Because it’s not. Check out the list of producers — it’s a predominantly American production made by an American studio with mostly American money. It wasn’t even eligible for BAFTA’s Best British Film award (which uses a notoriously loose definition of “British”) that year.

    Manuel: You could make that argument, but the film’s such a bitty co-production (the Italians, French and Chinese all had a hand in it) that you can’t really call it a predominantly British film.

    Patriotsfan: Rest assured, “Another Year” is nothing like “Picnic,” but Leigh’s dialogue has always been slightly stylised.

    Glenn: No, it’s exactly the same here. Every year, the local Oscar coverage is dominated by a “So, how did our Brits do?” angle, as if the entire country can take credit for somebody’s Oscar — or, conversely, as if the whole nation has been insulted because Carey Mulligan and Helen Mirren lost Best Actress. It drives me up the wall annually.

  • 11 10-29-2010 at 4:03 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    That said, lest I sound like a complete curmudgeon, that I was still living in South Africa when Charlize Theron won her Oscar, and the national excitement over that — including a tickertape parade (!) in her grim hometown of Benoni when she visited the week after the ceremony — was rather sweet.

  • 12 10-29-2010 at 4:04 am

    Cragsby said...

    Very good article though I would love Four Lions to be the In the Loop of this year and nab a screenplay nod, it is controversially hilarious!

  • 13 10-29-2010 at 6:26 am

    Gareth Thomas said...

    If any non-American film/actor wins an oscar (or is even nominated) their country goes absolutely mental, so no, it’s not just an Australian thing.

    I was in France when Marion Cotillard won and it was the number one news story. I live in Spain and the Bardem-Cruz wins are still talked about today…

    Other countries love to be invited to the Yanks’ party!

  • 14 10-29-2010 at 6:28 am

    Glenn said...

    Rob, Emile Sherman thinks otherwise. While the film seems to have been developed with an Australian production team (Transmission if I’m remembering correctly) it didn’t receive any Aus funding due to Screen Australia being prickly about it all for some reason and there was no financial upside to shooting here so they didn’t go down that path.

    It’s a UK/Australia co-production in name only. Or, that’s my understanding of the situation.

  • 15 10-29-2010 at 10:32 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    “Every year, the local Oscar coverage is dominated by a “So, how did our Brits do?” angle, as if the entire country can take credit for somebody’s Oscar — or, conversely, as if the whole nation has been insulted because Carey Mulligan and Helen Mirren lost Best Actress. It drives me up the wall annually.”

    It happens here stateside for racial minority groups – within their niche focused media outlets.

  • 16 10-29-2010 at 3:39 pm

    daveylow said...

    I was thorough disappointed by Made in Dagenham. The direction was so pedestrian and the screenplay held zero surprises. The actors try hard but it is just such a forgettable film, given the subject matter. I don’t think it serves any award nominations.

    I’m unsure how much love the Academy will give Another Year. Can’t they just give Leslie Manville a special award for being so good?

  • 17 10-29-2010 at 10:13 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “Mrs. Miniver” is a great film.