What do the Baftas tell us about Ireland’s Oscar hopes?

The Age of Cillian has firmly arrived, but history suggests anything can happen between now and next month

Whatever happens over the next few weeks, we can say with some certainty that, as we move into the second half of February, the film world finds itself firmly in the Age of Cillian. Just a few days after Tim Mielants’s Small Things Like These, for which he is credited as producer and lead actor, opened the Berlin Film Festival to ecstatic reviews, Cillian Murphy has become only the second Irish person to be named best actor by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

We should maybe stop pointing out he is also the first person born in Ireland to take that award – and would be the first to win the corresponding Oscar – as that risks diminishing the Irishness of Daniel Day-Lewis (who had citizenship for two of his three Oscar wins). Let’s just say he hopes to become the first Corkman to win top male acting prize at the American Academy. It is not as if that proud city would shun the acknowledgment.

Will he get there at the Dolby Theatre on March 10th? Can he become the second Irish winner, getting there before eminent names such as Michael Fassbender, Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Gabriel Byrne (not to mention whippersnappers such as Barry Keoghan)? Probably. But Bafta has an erratic record in predicting Oscars. In the asterisked Covid year of 2021 the British academy delivered an admirably eccentric list of nominations. Best actress nods for Bukky Bakray from Rocks and Radha Blank from The 40-Year-Old Version, but none for Carey Mulligan from Promising Young Woman. A best film nomination for The Mauritanian. Yet every winner of every top prize ­– all four actors, both screenplays, film, director – doubled up that year. That was, remember, the Oscar ceremony that ended with Anthony Hopkins, home winner at Bafta, unexpectedly beating the late Chadwick Boseman in best actor. Meanwhile, last year, after a more conventional list of nominees, not a single one of the winning actors, nor the best director winner, nor the best film winner repeated at Oscar.

The winners at Bafta this year can console themselves with the knowledge that 2023 was something of a special case. The majority of those Oscars went to a film that (for whatever reason) was notably less popular in the UK than in the US. People liked Everything Everywhere All At Once in these parts. But they didn’t love it. In contrast, Oppenheimer, a film with a British-born director, many British and Irish actors and a British producer, has gone down equally well on either side of the pond. There is, for most winners this weekend from the Oppenheimer camp, good reason to believe they can repeat in Hollywood.


And yet. Murphy may be facing the strongest challenger. Paul Giamatti’s charming turn in The Holdovers has reminded voters he is overdue a win. Should he triumph at the Screen Actors Guild awards next weekend – and he is slight favourite – then Giamatti and Murphy advance neck and neck for the Academy Award.

What about the other big home challenge? Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, produced by Element Films from Dublin, has performed above expectations since winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last September. Of the 10 best picture nominees, only the blockbusters – Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon and Barbie – have made more at the box office. A rude $92.5 million (and counting) is no small sum for a film of this type. When it secured 11 Oscar nods, there were brief fears that, initially favourite in none, it might end up equalling the record for most nominations with no wins. Remember it is 12 months since The Banshees of Inisherin whiffed on nine mentions. The Bafta results have put that worry to bed. Five wins confirms it is a mild favourite in categories such as production design and make-up and hair. Then there is best actress. The early favourite, Lily Gladstone for Killers of the Flower Moon, was not nominated for the British awards, but the increasing buzz around Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall had elevated Sandra Hüller, that film’s star, into a serious competitor. Hüller’s failure to get past Stone looks to have cut that category back to a two-horse race. The German actor had a semi-home advantage in Europe.

Indeed, Anatomy of a Fall could be seen as the main loser of Bafta. It took best original screenplay in a competitive race. But it failed to gain ground in best actress and lost to Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, study of life at the periphery of Auschwitz, for film not in English. Obviously, as a best British film, Zone had a leg up, but remember that Anatomy was nominated for best film and Zone was not. That suggests a swing. Justice was served in sound. Oppenheimer was expected to sweep all such hard-edged technical categories, but the ground-breaking sound design in Zone – an ambient chorus of death leaking in from the camp – won over voters not persuaded by sweep thinking. Zone up. Anatomy a tiny bit down.

What else? Shirley O’Connor and Medb Riordan, Irish producers of Earth Mama, winner of best debut, got some gratitude for an underseen film and got to hang out with presenter David Beckham. Samantha Morton, a smart choice for the Bafta fellowship, addressed social exclusion in a hugely moving speech. “I dedicate this award to every child in care today,” she said through choked tears. “Or who’s been in care, or is suffering.”

As for the razzamatazz, David Tennant was a confident host in a show that exorcised a few of last year’s ghosts. Remember Ariana DeBose and “Angela Bassett did the thing”? You probably don’t remember, as the footage was cut from 2023′s delayed TV broadcast, Mulligan being wrongly announced the winner in best supporting actress. Blandness is a forgivable sin at such events. But we can’t quite absolve the audience not voting Ayo Edebiri as EE rising star. The ubiquitous American chose to be Irish a year ago on the red carpet at South by Southwest in Austin. She should know we are relentless in our commitment to wrapping ourselves in the flag and cheering on local talent. So, yes. All hail The Age of Cillian.

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