No man’s land: in crowning Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell, Bafta has triumphed | Baftas 2021


This year’s Bafta list has confirmed the amazingly meteoric career ascendancy of Chloé Zhao, the Chinese-born film-maker whose debut movie was just six years ago and who was unknown outside arthouse-connoisseur circles until relatively recently; she now is set to rule awards season with a remarkable film displaying her now fully developed authorial signature.

Zhao’s outstandingly original and formally adventurous docudrama Nomadland has got best film, best director and also best actress for the perennially popular Frances McDormand who was shrewdly cast; her brilliance at conveying a certain kind of unassuming authenticity and unHollywood Americanness made her exactly right for this – a star who can blend in with nonprofessionals who Zhao has so far always used in her films.

McDormand plays a “nomad”, a type of financially stricken American retiree, pauperised by the 2008 crash, identified by journalist Jessica Bruder in her 2017 book Nomadland, on which the film was based. She has to sell up and tour around the country in a campervan looking for seasonal work, such as in Amazon fulfilment centres. Zhao dramatises this fictional character, but uses genuine “nomads” and cleverly folds McDormand into the real-world people whose lives, though punishingly tough, are in some ways liberated. The film is challenging because it daringly suggests that Nomadland is a place of revelation to these people in their declining years; their hardship is balanced by a belief that jettisoning their material possessions has been a relief. It is such an original and bold piece of work, with intelligence and artistry.

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Baftas 2021: moments of joy and surprise from the online acceptance speeches – video

Really, no actor other than Anthony Hopkins was possible for the Bafta best actor – his performance in the emotionally wrenching dementia drama The Father, directed by Florian Zeller, has had audiences – and this critic – in floods of tears. And Zeller and Christopher Hampton are probably worthy choices for best adapted screenplay, having so adroitly converted Zeller’s stage play (although I was tipping Moira Buffini for her vigorous script work on John Preston’s novel The Dig). Hopkins’s performance in The Father could be his best ever. And there is something not just desperately sad but also terrifying in the decline that Hopkins portrays, something to compare with his recent Lear on BBC TV, moaning: “Let me not be mad … ”

I am very pleased to see Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman get two Baftas, for best original screenplay and outstanding British film. This lethal, sulphurically incorrect rape-revenge nightmare, starring Carey Mulligan as an emotionally damaged young woman who pretends to be falling-down drunk in clubs to entrap men, was clearly created with a view to provoking and offending. So it has proved. It is disliked by some critics for being a cop-out, and endorsing the ultimate authority of the police. For me, this is to overlook its status as black comedy and its brilliant, satirically insurgent energy.

The Nomadland team take best picture. Photograph: Bafta/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Kaluuya’s superb performance as Chicago’s radical Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah is a resounding win for a great British talent – although the best supporting actor Bafta perhaps doesn’t do justice to his above-the-title star quality. I also loved Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, his autobiographical movie about a Korean-American family living on a farm in 80s Arkansas and it’s a shame it wasn’t up for best film, but it’s a treat to see veteran Korean player Youn Yuh-jung rewarded with the best supporting actress Bafta for her lovely performance as the cantankerous grandma.

In a way, the same goes for the joyous, beautiful and unexpectedly profound Pixar animation Soul; that could easily have been a best film contender, and was maybe unfairly corralled in the animation ghetto. But Soul’s best animated feature Bafta was obviously just.

My one big disagreement is with the best foreign film winner. There were some toweringly great movies listed as nominees here – including Minari, Jasmila Žbanić’s searing Bosnian war drama Quo Vadis, Aida? and Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades. But Bafta has (as I suspected) gone for Thomas Vinterberg’s amiable but not terribly profound – and often quite silly – booze comedy Another Round, which has been overrated all round.

Elsewhere, the social-realist adventure Rocks has been a jewel of this year’s award season – a film with heart and soul and glorious energy, and so it’s been wonderful to see the Rising Star Bafta go to its star Bukky Bakray. Great things – which is to say, more great things – are expected from her.

A satisfying Bafta list, topped off by the grownup artistry of Chloé Zhao.

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