Beyond the smallish circle of UK-based critics and industry folk, yesterday’s British Independent Film Awards didn’t attract much attention — which is hardly surprising, given what a quiet year it’s been for British film. Heavily-nominated titles like “Berberian Sound Studio” and “Sightseers,” excellent as they are, aren’t of much interest to awards-watchers with an eye only on Oscar possibilities — of which the BIFA list presented very few.
Crossover nominee “The Imposter” is certainly one to watch in the documentary Oscar race, especially given the new voting system’s emphasis on higher-profile theatrical releases. But the nominee we seem likeliest to hear more of in major categories through the rest of season is also the one that took BIFA observers most by surprise: John Madden’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
As a mainstream smash hit (with $33m, the 13th highest grosser of 2012 in the UK) with limited critical endorsement, the glossy but independently produced comedy wasn’t necessarily expected to be a major factor in an awards ceremony largely dedicated to work on the fringes. Yet not only did it receive acting nods for beloved veterans Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson — it also popped up in Best Film, and even Best Director. That’s indicative of significant support in the UK industry for a film that hasn’t left people’s memories — or affections — since its local release way back in February, and is continuing to find viewers through word of mouth on DVD.
When a populist favorite registers with the independent crowd, that invariably spells mainstream awards success — which positions “Best Exotic” well with BAFTA voters, who have a habit of sidelining more arthouse-oriented homegrown fare. At least one top BIFA nominee — recently, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “The King’s Speech,” “An Education” and “Slumdog Millionaire” — tends to rake in a hefty haul of BAFTA nods, so it seems likely that the genteel oldsters’ favorite will follow suit. Even if British studio films like “Les Miserables” and “Skyfall” wind up stealing its thunder in the larger awards race, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Best Film, British Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay and a slew of acting bids for the “Exotic” crowd when the British Academy unveils their nominations in January.
Of course, the enthusiasms of the wily Brit contingent aren’t always reflected in the awards race across the pond, but I can’t help wondering if “Best Exotic” mightn’t be a stronger dark horse in the Oscar derby than we’re currently giving it credit for being. The British voting bloc within the Academy is not to be underestimated, often giving UK contenders a boost in the Oscar voting even when they stumble with the Guilds and other US-centric precursors: they’re the ones who showed up for “Atonement” in 2007, and who helped “Tinker Tailor” star Gary Oldman come from behind to land a Best Actor nod earlier this year.
Most pundits are predicting a Best Supporting Actress nod for Maggie Smith — more in recognition of her recent, “Downton Abbey”-assisted career surge than anything spectacular about her schticky performance — but is that where the film’s Oscar prospects end? One might think the Best Actress race has become too crowded for Judi Dench’s similarly unremarkable turn, but could the film’s increased momentum, assisted by “Skyfall” fever, boost her chances? There’s still room for maneuver in Best Adapted Screenplay. And is there a chance that 5% of Academy voters might like the film enough to put it atop their Best Picture ballots?
Right now, the smart money says no — as do those who like to imagine that the film is too televisual and too disposable to merit consideration as one of the year’s finest examples of cinematic craft. Yet it’s hard to ignore just how much people out there — particularly those in the senior demographic that is so crucial in the Academy — really love this film, which has had a long time to reach voters.
Golden Globe voters are likely to be generous in the Comedy/Musical categories; added to the likelihood of BAFTA attention, Fox Searchlight has the basis for a strong campaign across multiple avenues in the season, and they’ll be aware of that. How will it stack up in their priorities against “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” seemingly the studio’s top Best Picture prospect, “The Sessions” and “Hitchcock?” The latter, though a US production, might have seemed an obstacle to the British vote, but with last week’s muted reception having seemingly relegated it to performance awards consideration only, “Best Exotic”‘s larger squad of British vets could yet make it the stronger player. Keep an eye — peering over half-moon reading glasses –on it.