Two British (or part-British) films came out on top at the Toronto Film Festival this year — and they haven’t much more in common than what’s already in this sentence. Unless you’ve just returned from an extended meditation retreat in the Hindu Kush, you’re probably aware that Steve McQueen’s biographical slavery drama “12 Years a Slave” emerged most triumphant all from the fall fests, bearing bushels of critical praise, the much-coveted TIFF Audience Award and a position as Oscar frontrunner that only “Gravity” has seen fit to challenge so far. We have yet to see how it fares in the real world, but it’s an impressive run for a film that, by consensus, takes a brutal, unyielding approach to an eternally tough historical subject.
Finishing second to “12 Years a Slave” in the Audience Award voting — though trailing it rather distantly in the buzz stakes — was Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” another true-life tale of woe, though one that takes a mostly bright-and-breezy approach to its poignant story of a mother forcibly separated from her child, and haunted by the loss half a century later.
Bolting this narrative onto an odd-couple comedy starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan isn’t an obvious approach, but it seems to have worked: reversing Frears’ recent run of duds, the film drew gales of laughter, tears and applause from critics and audiences at Venice, where Coogan was rewarded for his screenplay, and evidently worked its charms on the North American crowd too. Oscar talk has centered chiefly on Dench so far, though that could expand; a healthy haul of BAFTA and Golden Globe comedy/musical nods, meanwhile, seems all but assured.
If “12 Years a Slave” and “Philomena” end up as Britain’s two top horses in the awards race — which they presumably will, unless the collected members of the Academy acquire a robust sense of humor and nominate “Diana” — they’ll doubtless be paired up by the British media as twin mascots for the country’s industry. (Expect them to tacitly ignore the Brad Pitt-produced US credentials of McQueen’s film.) It happens every year, whether the final voting bears out the bullish “the British are coming” cries — as it has recently in the years “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire” — or not. (To go by some of the more excitable UK Oscar coverage earlier this year, you’d have thought “Les Misérables”‘s trio of wins for Supporting Actress, Makeup and Sound amounted to a dazzling sweep.)
Still, you could hardly pick two more diametrically opposed representatives for British cinema going forward: one soft, one hard; one from the old guard, one emphatically of the new; one local in its craft and concerns, one rather more international.
Frears and McQueen share a first name, but little else. The former is an Oxbridge-certified, 72-year-old stalwart of the British filmmaking establishment, whose aesthetic trademark has become his lack thereof. 43-year-old McQueen is a British-Grenadian grammar-school graduate and Turner Prize-winning fine artist, with an avant-garde sensibility that extends to his visceral, semi-stylized feature films. Much is being made of the fact that McQueen could be the first black filmmaker to win the Best Director Oscar, but his race isn’t the only way in which he breaks the Academy mold.
Frears has strayed into cooler territory before — never more successfully than in his US genre excursion “The Grifters,” which netted his his first Oscar nomination — but has extensive form in crafting cosily televisual, thematically unchallenging audience films like “Philomena” and its closest, if slightly less fuzzy, precedent, 2006’s Best Picture-nominated “The Queen.” A film best and most inarguably described as “nice,” “Philomena” adds a drop of testy Catholic doubt to its otherwise comforting, condescending Britcom formula — enough to add the illusion of gravitas, though certainly not enough to find much friction in the secular UK market (where it’ll do roaring business upon its November release), or even in the US. That’s why the Weinsteins snapped this one up in a heated bidding war at Cannes, and why it could quietly end up as the strongest card in their hand this year.
“12 Years a Slave,” on the other hand, finds McQueen pushing himself into unfamiliar territory: his largest-scale film to date, and the one with the most American input (though he worked in the States, of course, on his sophomore feature, “Shame”), it’s a gutsy effort to fuse his independent British sensibility to a heftyTransatlantic prestige vehicle that seems, so far, to have worked. (If it seemed odd that savvy US distributors Fox Searchlight picked up “Shame” — a relatively out-there property by their standards — in 2011, that investment is paying off handsomely now.)
Furthermore, the film also serves as a showcase for a cresting generation of British or British-reared actors that hadn’t until now made their mark on the Academy, chief among them Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender — whose non-nomination for “Shame” two years ago seemed indicative that the Academy wasn’t yet ready for what McQueen and his team had to offer. Ready or not, they’re coming around again. And interestingly, they’re the sure bets this time, while it’s the older-school Brits — including two-time nominee McQueen and six-time nominee Dench — who are reaching for a place lower down on the ballot.
Both “12 Years a Slave” and “Philomena” are represented in the lineup for the London Film Festival, which kicks off today. The remainder of the programme’s British contingent, meanwhile, skews more heavily in the direction of McQueen-style risk and invention. Forward-thinking British production company Film4, which had a significant hand in “12 Years a Slave,” also contributed the quartet of British titles in the festival’s Official Competition: Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” Clio Barnard’s “The Selfish Giant,” David Mackenzie’s “Starred Up” and Richard Ayoade’s “The Double,” all striking contemporary works from rising or resurgent filmmakers that may as well have been made on a different planet to “Philomena.”
None of those directors are getting near the Academy Awards just yet — or, most likely, even the insecurely Oscar-aping BAFTAs. And they sit in amusingly stark contrast to some of the amiably undemanding Britpics showcased in the New York Film Festival, much to the amazement of UK onlookers: Richard Curtis’ cutesy time-travel romcom “About Time,” Roger Michell’s pensioners-in-Paris romcom “Le Weekend,” and Steve Coogan’s disappointing sitcom spinoff “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.” British film is still different things to different people, as any healthy national cinema should be. But an Oscar win for Steve McQueen — as different a figure to, say, Tom Hooper as you could ask for — may put an international spotlight on the changing of the guard.
Check out my current predictions here.