Filmgoers have always loved a good redemption tale. Few things fill cinema seats faster than when the wooden puppet turns into a real boy, the quarreling couple falls in love or the plucky underdog becomes the hero. Which made it all the more poignant when, on Sunday night, a film about a young Indian boy's unlikely rise from slum dweller to millionaire received top prize at an awards show that, after so many years of being underappreciated, has finally come into its own.
Complaining about the BAFTAs the film awards that the British Academy of Film and Television Arts hands out each year has become something of a national sport. If the Academy decides to honor plenty of British talent, it's criticized for being too parochial; if a bunch of Americans appear on the winners list, it's accused of being overly enamored with Hollywood. Damned if it does, damned if it doesn't.
But this year the British contingent, led by sleeper hit Slumdog Millionaire and a double-duty Kate Winslet (The Reader and Revolutionary Road), had already conquered at most of the big awards ceremonies and is looking set to triumph at the upcoming Oscars, too. The British Academy suddenly became all things to all people: it could celebrate homegrown talent and still stay in step with the big guys. (See pictures from the 2009 BAFTAs.)
And so it was that during the ceremony at London's Royal Opera House, Slumdog Millionaire picked up seven awards, including Best Film and Best Director for Danny Boyle, Winslet won the Leading Actress award for her role in The Reader, and the Original Screenplay prize went to the Irish hitman comedy In Bruges. Echoing the sentiments of their American brethren, the British Academy voters also gave Leading Actor kudos to comeback king Mickey Rourke for his role in The Wrestler (his expletive-sprinkled acceptance speech getting some of the night's biggest laughs), honored the late Heath Ledger's turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight with a Supporting Actor award, crowned WALL-E best Animated Film and applauded The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with a few of the less sexy awards for production design and make up. (See pictures of the rise, fall and rise again of Mickey Rourke.)
So far, so predictable. But there were a few surprises, even if some may have been born of necessity rather than any sort of maverick cinematic spirit. Best Supporting Actress went not to national treasure Winslet, but to Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Whether or not that was only because Winslet wasn't even up for supporting actress and instead competed against herself for best actress we'll never know. And France's I've Loved You So Long (starring British actress Kristin Scott Thomas, who speaks fluent French) raised a few eyebrows when it beat odds on Oscar favorite Waltz With Bashir and Italian Mafia flick Gomorrah to the foreign language film award. (See pictures of some of the greatest ever animated movies.)
The truly unexpected event, though, came in the Outstanding British Film category. The inclusion of heavyweight Slumdog among the five nominees seemed almost unfair, as if Stephen Hawking were to show up at your local pub quiz. Everyone was so busy assuming that Slumdog would walk away with the prize, it took a moment to register when Sharon Stone announced that Man on Wire the critically acclaimed documentary about Frenchman Philip Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers had actually nabbed the BAFTA. The film's director James Marsh was so unprepared that when he hopped onto the stage, with a dazed look on his face, host Jonathan Ross had to pull him aside and suggest he tuck his shirt in before taking to the podium.
It was a sweet moment, and one that showed how willingly the British Academy shares the love when it comes to recognizing indigenous talent. But it also begs the question: when, year after year, more and more British filmmakers, actors and actresses are winning awards alongside their Hollywood counterparts, is there any need for an Outstanding British Film category at all? How come all British films are equal, but some British films are more equal than others? Yes, Britain's film industry is much smaller and poorer than America's, and, true, there's the risk that, in some years, U.S. award winners will swallow the Brits whole. But, these days, who's to say which films should be relegated to the British film category and which films go beyond British and get to compete as simply great movies?
Maybe one day the British Academy will need to figure out an answer to that question. Because it seems that, finally, the film world actually cares what BAFTA thinks. The proof? One word: Brangelina. By far the starriest of stars who've attended the ceremony in a long time (for two people who didn't win any awards, they generated a lot of column inches in Monday's papers), the Jolie-Pitts sent out the message that the BAFTAs matter. Now if George Clooney and Julia Roberts show up next year, the BAFTAs' redemption will be complete.