‘The Mauritanian,’ ‘Rocks’ Shine at BAFTAs

Awards season can often feel like a months-long echo chamber in which the same handful of films and names are discussed to death. So when BAFTA threw in a number of left-field contenders who had hitherto been largely absent from the conversation, it was both a refreshing change of pace for jaded awards pundits — and a welcome pointer for film fans seeking new recommendations.

It’s rare for BAFTA to shine a major spotlight on work that isn’t being equivalently championed across the Atlantic: In 2016, it took a surge of public conversation and political debate to get Ken Loach’s resonant British welfare drama “I, Daniel Blake” into the best film category, despite no U.S. buzz to speak of.

Until this year, it was the only film this century to score in BAFTA’s top category and receive no Oscar nominations at all.

This year, however, BAFTA flew a prominent flag for two films that ultimately failed to register in the Oscar slate. One might be regarded as a relative also-ran in the American awards race.

Scottish director Kevin Macdonald’s grimy but starry Guantanamo Bay drama “The Mauritanian” seemed at several points to be making headway in Hollywood, peaking with Jodie Foster’s surprise Golden Globe win in the supporting actress category. Tahar Rahim’s quietly intense lead performance as the unjustly imprisoned Mohamedou Ould Slahi also appeared to be in the general Oscar mix, as did the film’s adapted screenplay.

Despite the film’s low profile in the voting season — it was unreleased in the U.K. until April — BAFTA voters were believers, handing the film five nominations including best film, actor and adapted screenplay. That’s to be expected, considering its brawny craftsmanship, British credentials, and the reliable stamp of Macdonald, who has two best British film BAFTAs for “Touching the Void” and “The Last King of Scotland.” More surprising was the film’s complete Oscar shutout: perhaps this story of a very American political shame didn’t sit as comfortably with Academy voters, or perhaps it was simply lost in the noise of a pandemic muddled season.

Still, at least it got a chance to compete at all. The little-engine-that-could success story of this year’s BAFTAs was “Rocks,” director Sarah Gavron’s vibrant portrait of female adolescence and class conflict in modern London. It astonished many by landing seven nominations, including for director, actress and supporting actress — joining “Nomadland” at the top of the board. Over the pond, however, it wasn’t even Oscar-eligible, despite being released by Netflix in the States in February. That lack of international awards-season exposure likely cost “Rocks” crucial support in the all-members vote for best film, where it failed to receive a nomination despite its sterling showing elsewhere. (By contrast, Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” showed up in the top category despite only two other nominations.)

The odd mixture of triumph and final-hurdle disappointment in “Rocks’s” BAFTA performance is indicative, finally, of warring impulses within the BAFTA body. It benefited from the imagination and inclusivity of the members involved with the new jurying initiative, yet seemingly fell short with less resourceful members who still give lower-profile British indies short shrift. Still, in past years, Gavron’s film would have been lucky to get anything more than a best British film nod. One hopes the headway it has made this year encourages voters to recognize unsung excellence closer to home.

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