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BAFTA Awards 2009 – poverty-chic fable cleans up

BAFTA Awards

BAFTA Awards

BAFTA – Winners 2009

A mystery: why is a film setting a ‘feel good’ fairytale in a Mumbai slum called “courageous”? I applaud the four technical BAFTA awards to Slumdog Millionaire; especially the award of best music to A R Rahman’s superb musical score. Editing, cinematography, sound – no complaints there either.

But calling Slumdog Millionaire the best film of 2008/9 even allowing for the inherent absurdity of trying to make highly competitive evaluative comparisons of artistic merit, is simply daft. So why? Even the massive publicity, promotional and advertising campaign for SM , no doubt funded by Celador who own the quiz show in the title doesn’t really explain this weird and slightly queasy phenomenon.

The clue I think lies in this strange idea that there is something ‘courageous’ about this film’s setting. The only risk here was financial – would the film make money? And giving a rosy-tinted romantic fairy tale a mind-numbingly sentimental treatment certainly increased the likelihood of that. The queasiness is induced by the unstated unexplored idea that expecting western audiences to take to a story about India and Indians was to make a brave leap of faith. About what? That instinctive racial, ethnic antipathy of many could be overcome by artistic daring? Hardly – Slumdog Millionaire is to the poor people in the slums of Mumbai what the luxury goods in the windows of expensive shops in the city are: something unobtainable, out of their reach except in fairytales. And the patronising premise underlying ‘courageous’ is emphasised by the implicit celebration of celebrity and its dark reflection notoriety, that drives the SM narrative.

There were courageous films in competition: Gomorra risked for Director Matteo Garrone the same kind of serious threat to his life from the notorious crime families of Naples as the book on which it was based posed for Naples journalist Roberto Saviano. Steve MCQueen’s Hunger risked telling a disturbing story the political establishments of Britain and Ireland would rather bury along with Bobby Sands whose story inspired it. Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure fearlessly portrayed the truth of America’s shameful flirtation with torture in Abu Ghraib long before it became fashionable in a post-Bush world to do so.

So please don’t let us have any more ridiculous talk of the poverty-chic of Danny Boyle’s sentimental fable being more than a rather cleverly market-focussed confection. If I am wrong I apologise but I also cannot help asking myself whether the cost-savings implied by choice of story and setting did not figure in the project planning from the start. It is part of the curse of our worship of celebrity and fame that the people of Mumbai may relish their city being publicised and becoming better known around the world – even the desperately poor, living, not acting, in irredeemable poverty and deprivation.

Leaving aside these ethical rather than artistic issues, it seems to me that Slumdog Millionaire looks set to become one of the most over-rated films in recent years. Its proper competitors are films like Mama Mia or Sex In The City – fun nights out. This underlines I think my point: I can see why Mama Mia warms everyone’s heart, including disturbingly it seems, Russia’s President Putin, and has them cheering and singing in the aisles. But one can’t help feeling instinctively that there is something disturbing, no wrong, about reacting to Slumdog in the same way.

If the BAFTAs to SM are misguided, awarding one to Mickey Rourke for the slight, again sentimental little tale that is The Wrestler is frankly fatuous when compared certainly to Brad Pitt’s superb Benjamin Button or Frank Langella in Frost Nixon. It marks a new criterion for judgement – an award for an actor simply for playing himself on screen. Mickey Rourke convinces me in this film that he can be accepted and respected as an equal amongst the hard men in the close-knit brotherhood of professional wrestlers; just as he convinced us years ago that he could attract the same respect among boxers. The only group I do not find him credible as a member of – is that of actors. Even his acceptance was mostly Mickey Rourke doing Mickey Rourke.

No complaints about Kate Winslett’s BAFTA for The Reader, though in terms of quality Kristin Scott Thomas ran her a very close second in I’ve Loved You so Long. No one will begrudge the posthumous supporting actor BAFTA to Heath Ledger in Dark Knight as is it fully justified by the performance and the sentiment merely makes the award more poignant not inappropriate.

I am delighted that the Academy found a way to recognise the inspirational Man On Wire as the Oustanding British Film, paradoxically a breathtaking true story of a remarkable Frenchman. The quirky In Bruges deserved its original screenplay BAFTA as did I’ve Loved You So Long as best film not in English. Lemon Tree was a notable omission from this category.

I haven’t seen Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona but given her great performance in Volver, I can believe Penelope Cruz may deserve her supporting actress BAFTA. Wallace and Grommit and Wall-E were shoe-ins for their categories.

As indicators for the Oscars – I sincerely hope that the moving Benjamin Button with its literary structure and elegaic tone, will be more widely recognised than the two technical (Make-up and Special Effects) BAFTAs it got. You have to bring something to this cinematically meditative movie about time and timelessness, age and aging, and the strength and fragility of love. There is a unity of purpose and artistic achievement here between Director, screenplay, cinematography, editing that Pitt and Blanchett’s performances serve well. Supreme technical expertise in make-up and special effects also subserve the overall artistic vision of this movie and establish a subtle thread of magical realism throughout that adds to its resonance. As an example of the collaborative nature of film-making as an art Benjamin Button probably is the best film of the year but you have to engage it, let it draw you into ucomfortable areas of emotion about time and age.

Other candidates for ‘best’ film of the year? Well until they categorise these as Drama, Musical, Comedy, Thriller etc I guess I’d go for The Reader or Man On Wire . But for sheer style and class in its genre, with nail-biting tension from the minute the film opens to second it ends, superb editing and a better than average plot, I’d go for The Bourne Ultimatum. But then that’s just an unpretentious, honest, brilliant fictional movie – pure Hollywood. Not a beggar in sight. Blind or not.

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