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09.09.10

Will Brits Own the Oscars?

The British are coming! As the Oscar race begins, Stephen Farber handicaps three of this fall's hottest films—and all of them have an English pedigree.

Will Brits storm the stage at the Kodak Theatre when the Oscars are handed out next February? It’s looking increasingly likely. And of course it’s happened before. Hollywood has always had a serious case of Anglophilia. Many Academy Award-winning Best Pictures, from Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) to Slumdog Millionaire (2008), had a British pedigree. Legions of British actors have been favorites of the Academy: Charles Laughton, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith, Glenda Jackson, Helen Mirren, to name just a few. Many British directors have also grabbed the gold: David Lean, Carol Reed, Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger, Anthony Minghella, and Danny Boyle are some of the champions.

This year’s Telluride Film Festival featured the first screenings of several of the top Oscar contenders of 2010, and even though this festival is held in a mining town that epitomizes the American West, three of the most admired films were by British directors. Leading the pack is The King’s Speech—to be released on Nov. 24—which has many of the qualities that have always enchanted Oscar voters. It unearths a little-known story about King George VI of England, who suffered from a serious speech impediment that made him an unlikely leader of Britain on the eve of World War II. The speech therapist who helped him to overcome his stammer was a scrappy Australian, Lionel Logue, who succeeded partly because he was not intimidated by his royal patient.

Stories about triumphing over a physical or mental malady have often proven irresistible to Oscar voters. For example, Rain Man, My Left Foot, and A Beautiful Mind were showered with awards.

Beyond that, however, The King’s Speech script by David Seidler is a witty, literate marvel reminiscent of the script that Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman wrote for Shakespeare in Love, which upset the favorite, Saving Private Ryan, in 1998. The prickly sessions between the king, Bertie (as he was known to his family), and Lionel are charged with humor and poignancy. Seidler manages to invest all the relationships with complex texture, and he deftly sketches the backdrop of England in the 1930s, when a man who was never supposed to be king ascended to the throne after his father died and his older brother abdicated. This is an intimate story of friendship that also has undeniable historical sweep.

The performances are matchless. Colin Firth was nominated for an Oscar just last year for A Single Man, and he’s had a following at least since he played Mr. Darcy in the memorable British miniseries of Pride and Prejudice. (His co-star in that production, Jennifer Ehle, plays Logue’s wife in The King’s Speech.) The cast includes Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush as Logue, Oscar nominee Helena Bonham Carter as the king’s wife, and such mainstays of British film and theater as Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, and Timothy Spall. Tom Hooper, the director of The King’s Speech, has already won an Emmy for Elizabeth I and was nominated again for John Adams. All of the players are working here at peak capacity.

At the moment, Britannia rules.

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If Hooper faces competition at the Oscars, it could be from fellow Brit Danny Boyle, whose new film, 127 Hours, also captivated audiences at its world premiere in Telluride. Boyle may seem like a long shot, but his bravura achievement in making such an engrossing, entertaining film out of a difficult piece of material will be hard to overlook. Many people around the world followed the harrowing story of Aron Ralston, a climber who was trapped in a remote canyon in Utah and had to amputate his own arm in order to survive. The gruesome details may put off some Academy voters, but it’s worth remembering that Slumdog Millionaire also incorporated harsh images depicting the brutalization of children in India. In this case, Boyle’s filmmaking brio and the dynamic performance of James Franco compensate for the macabre moments. Boyle told the Telluride audience that he knew the worldwide success of Slumdog gave him an opportunity to tackle a more challenging piece of material, and the Academy might well reward him for taking the riskier path to glory. (It is scheduled to be released on Nov. 5.)

Another British-made film that enthralled crowds in Telluride is more of a dark-horse candidate. The First Grader doesn’t even have a distributor at this moment, but several companies were circling after they saw the standing ovations that this film received at the festival. The film is based on the true story of an illiterate 84-year-old farmer in Kenya who resolved to attend school when the government introduced universal education. At first the authorities refuse to admit him, but he finds an ally in a dedicated teacher played by Naomie Harris. The director of the film is Justin Chadwick, who first caught the world’s attention with his superb work on the BBC adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House a few years ago.

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Chadwick and screenwriter Ann Peacock sketch some of Kenya’s troubled history in the backstory of the farmer who was once a Mau Mau tribesman tortured in a British prison. The director takes full advantage of the exotic setting, and he does a fine job directing children found in local villages where the film was shot. Chadwick also works beautifully with Oliver Litondo, who plays the stubborn octogenarian student. And Harris, who has been seen in such diverse films as Tristram Shandy and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, gives an equally memorable performance as an inspiring teacher with true grit in her bones. Even if Chadwick doesn’t make the walk down the red carpet this year, his sterling work on The First Grader insures that he will live to compete another day.

It’s still early in the year, and more films will certainly emerge to complicate the Oscar race. But at the moment, Britannia rules.

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Stephen Farber is a film critic for The Hollywood Reporter. He has written reviews and articles on film for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Movieline, Esquire, New York, New West, and many other publications. Farber has written four books on film: The Movie Rating Game; Hollywood Dynasties; Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case; and Hollywood on the Couch.