And the best British actor is . . . Saoirse Ronan? Really?

Why does the London Film Critics’ Circle refer to Irish actors as British? It’s baffling

Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn stars Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters and is due to be released on November 6th. Video: Lionsgate Films

 

Relations have not always been sweet between the two largest islands in our archipelago. After a millennium of atrocity, outrage, and misunderstanding, a recently resolved controversy concerning the London Film Critics’ Circle (LFCC) seems barely worth discussing. The incident does, however, illustrate certain nagging irritations between Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Each December, the LFCC announces the nominations for its annual awards. As you might expect, they celebrate notable achievements by British film-makers. In 2011, both Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender were nominated for best British actor. Last year, Saoirse Ronan was mentioned as a potential best young British performer of the year. This year, things came to a head with four Irish professionals nominated in “British” categories: Ronan, Fassbender, Colin Farrell and Emma Donoghue, screenwriter of Lenny Abrahamson’s fine Room.

Flag-planting

It’s worth distinguishing between blatant appropriation and justifiable flag-planting that can seem inappropriate at first glance. John Crowley’s Brooklyn was, this year, originally listed under Best British Film. The picture is co-produced by the BBC and, thus, can reasonably be so described. Similarly Room can be viewed as both Canadian and Irish.

The jiggery-pokery with actors and film-makers is a different matter. There is no significant British investment inSaoirse Ronan’s frame. The BBC has not financed Fassbender’s left leg or Donoghue’s lower abdomen. Every year there is some anger among the domestic film community, but it is short-lived. The nominated Irish personnel, not wishing to seem ungrateful, rarely comment on the matter.

The situation is (or was, until last week) genuinely baffling. One is tempted to suggest that those terrible Brits are always at this sort of thing. Ingest a day of UK media and it is rare you won’t find some Irish person being identified as British.

However, formal, institutional blurring of the distinctions between the nations is now much less common than it once was. It is nearly 15 years since the British Lions officially became the British and Irish Lions. If the often-unreconstructed nabobs in rugby union can see the problem, then why not the disproportionately liberal scribes in the LFCC?

Earlier attempts to assess the body’s reasoning have tended to exacerbate the situation. Last year, an inquiry from another newspaper generated the following extraordinary comment: “We know Ireland isn’t part of Britain, but the Irish film industry is part of the British film industry, and that’s what these awards refer to.”

Is that so? Well, the Irish Film Board may as well pack up its things and leave funding to the British Film Institute so. An explanation on the LFCC website seemed calculated to further annoy.

“Irish citizens are eligible for these awards but many Irish actors and directors work on what are technically British films and their work deserves recognition,” it half-explains. “Patriotic Irish people with genuine issues to raise will be replied to – those who send obscene emails will not.” Excuse me, sor! Terrible sorry to be boddering ye, your worships!

The argument seems to be this: Irish personnel are recognised in British sections because that talent has worked on British films. Yet that “courtesy” is not extended to French, Danish or Dutch actors and film-makers. Hollywood is crowded with British performers. One can, however, only imagine how that nation’s press would react if Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch were nominated as “best American actor”. Something beyond mere proximity sets the Irish apart.

This small annoyance confirm that a surprising number of British people regard the Republic of Ireland’s independence as an eccentric technicality. People who insist upon it are like those folk who insist the 21st century really began in 2001. Okay, they’re technically correct, but that’s not how it is in the real world, right? It’s like insisting that the Isle of Man isn’t really in the UK.

Prominent critics

Meanwhile, we tire of pointing out that Canada and Australia – which both have the queen as head of state – are more “British” than the Republic of Ireland.

It is unfair to bring all this up again. When I raised the issue (again) with the LFCC this week, I got the sense that I was finally pushing against an open door. At least two prominent critics expressed dismay that the categories had not yet been renamed. Before the Twitter storm had time to gain strength, a statement had been issued confirming a change. “Note that our local categories have been renamed this year as British/Irish,” it said.

Harmony is largely restored.

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