In retrospect, it seems surprising, to put it mildly, that, for 25 years, the BAFTAs seemed to turn their back on the “B”—for British—that this Academy for Film and Television Arts had so keenly wanted to celebrate at its inception in 1947. Yet that’s exactly what happened in 1967; after two decades, the Best British Film category was quietly shelved and replaced with the all-encompassing Best Film. But why? Looking back, one can perhaps understand the rationale: the postwar British film industry was a boom time for auteur directors, and the likes of Sir Carol Reed (a three-time winner), David Lean (a four-time winner), Charles Crichton and Basil Dearden dominated the awards landscape.
In the ’60s, however, things began to change, and a win in 1964 for New Yorker Stanley Kubrick, with the hit black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, changed the narrative drastically. The next year, the award went to Canadian Sidney J. Furie for the Michael Caine spy thriller The IPCRESS File; the year after that, to another New Yorker, Martin Ritt, for another espionage thriller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starring the legendary Richard Burton. And after the Austrian Fred “Zed” Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons scored both Best Film From Any Source as well as Best British Film at the 21st BAFTA ceremony—with a sprawling cast that featured Orson Welles, Citizen Kane himself, as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey—it’s likely the BAFTAs thought its once-localised industry might be starting to outgrow them.
Funnily enough, when the category returned in 1992, the first film honored with the ‘new-look’ Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film (later Outstanding British Film), with no competition, was directed by an Irishman—and with not a small amount of irony, it marked the end of one era of British cinema and the beginning of another. The film was Neil Jordan’s Troubles-set IRA drama The Crying Game, starring Stephen Rea, but its success came too late to save the U.K.’s Palace Pictures, the maverick indie company steered by Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell, from bankruptcy. In the U.S., however, the film’s sleeper-hit status proved a bonus for the up-and-coming indie shingle Miramax, shortly to enter its short-lived heyday as Disney’s prestige movie wing.
When the award went the following year to Richard Attenborough’s tear-jerking C.S. Lewis biopic Shadowlands, it seemed that history might be about to repeat itself, with a return to the hierarchies of the past—Attenborough’s competition that year came from a new wave of elder statesmen: Mike Leigh, with Naked, and Ken Loach, with Raining Stones. But in 1994 the lie of the land couldn’t have been more different, with Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave beating off competition from relative whippersnappers Gurinder Chadha (Bhaji on the Beach), Iain Softley (Backbeat) and Antonia Bird (Priest). The following year, in which cult British indie Trainspotting lost out to period drama The Madness of King George, has been the template for the battle for Best British Film ever since, zipping backwards and forwards between the traditional and the new, one minute rewarding, say, Andrea Arnold for her social-realist drama Fish Tank (2009), the next backing such traditional heritage cinema as The King’s Speech (2010).
In 2018, what’s unusual is that the heavy hitter taking on the young pretenders has abstained from the race, absenting itself from Best British Film in order to focus on Best Film, period. Even more unusually, it’s a genre that the Academy noticeably has a taste for—during the ’50s, the Second World War film was especially well represented—and yet Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk will be sitting this one out. In its place, and covering almost the exact same historical timeframe, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour will be repping the classic Brit blockbuster alone, facing eclectic competition from a line-up that includes two low-budget debuts—Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country and William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth—a black comedy (Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin), an Oscar darling (Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and a family film (Paul King’s this-year-Oscar-ineligible Paddington 2).
It’s a measure of the unpredictability of this category that there is no way to identify favourites; The Death of Stalin may seem too edgy to push past Darkest Hour, and yet in 2007 Wright’s Best Film winner Atonement, a certified Brit-lit smash, lost out here to Shane Meadows’s gritty This is England. Paddington 2, meanwhile, might be too obvious, too safe, too commercial—but might that also have been said of Sam Mendes’s Skyfall, the winner in 2012? Even with Dunkirk in the mix, it wouldn’t be a safe bet. Because, now, some 25 years after coming back from its strange hiatus, the Best British Film continues to remind us to expect the unexpected, even if it might not seem unexpected at all.