Bafta Film Awards 2021: A delicious rise to the top for Nomadland and Chloe Zhao

Charlotte O'Sullivan
·5-min read
<p>Nomadland director Chloe Zhao</p> (PA Media)

Nomadland director Chloe Zhao

(PA Media)

Last year, 1917 (a film that contained virtually no women and was directed by a white man) swept the board at the Baftas. This year the major prizes went to Nomadland. Yeehaw!

True, we knew this was coming. Throughout this awards season, Chinese director, Chloe Zhao, has been schnaffling up prizes. But every time I watch a clip from her casually urgent epic - often described as “an anti-Western” - I’m deliciously shocked, all over again, that it’s risen to the top.

Sixtysomething, occasionally cranky drifter, Fern, (Frances McDormand), has a van that doubles as her house and loo. She looks like she’s been dragged backwards through every hedge on the planet. The world is not kind to the dispossessed. It’s certainly not kind to middle-aged women. But Zhao is kind to Fern.

I was already in love with the 38-year-old Zhao. Watching her accept the prize for Best Film (“ageing is a beautiful part of life... how we treat our elders says a lot about who we are as a society”) I love her just a little bit more.

The shock of the night this time around was Anthony Hopkins beating favourite Chadwick Boseman in the Best Actor category. Boseman, who died last August, is brilliant in the 1920s-set Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as jittery jazz trumpeter Levee. I wanted Boseman to win, because this was the Baftas last chance to honour his stupendous talent. That said, Levee isn’t the central character in the film and, as a result, Boseman doesn’t get to show off his full range in the way that Hopkins does in The Father.

As Anthony, an addled and volatile pensioner, Hopkins makes an ordinary Maida Vale flat feel as dangerous as The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. Anthony is both scary and scared, and right up until the final scene in a dismal care home, we don’t know what this man is made of. The Father (fiercely relevant to our Covid-warped moment) allows Hopkins to give his most moving performance ever. I can see how, on paper, rewarding a British national treasure looks like a retrograde move. But, trust me, this is not a prestige movie and nothing about Hopkins’ turn is “safe”. In that sense, I’m thrilled Hopkins’ work – and the genius of French director, Florian Zeller, who collected the prize for Best Adapted Screenplay for this, his first foray on screen - has been acknowledged, though I’m guessing it was a sad night for Boseman’s widow.

Emerald Fennell picked up two gongs for Promising Young Womanvia REUTERS
Emerald Fennell picked up two gongs for Promising Young Womanvia REUTERS

The two wins for Emerald Fennell’s controversial rape-revenge thriller, Promising Young Woman (Best Original Screenplay and Outstanding British Film), made me punch the air. I let out my biggest whoop, however, when Remi Weekes won Outstanding British Debut for His House.

An alt-scary movie, His House plugs us into the anguish of a couple of asylum seekers, Bol and Rial (Sope Dirisu and Wumni Mosaku), who flee genocide in South Sudan only to find less tangible horrors on an Essex estate. Ingeniously surreal edits mix past and present (in one sequence, Rial escapes the cold hell of Tilbury and steps straight into Africa, where a throng of warm and smiling women confront him – and the viewer – with an appalling truth). His House made me shiver. It also made me cry and cry. It’s been out on Netflix for months. If you still haven’t seen it, get thee to a TV set and watch it now.

No one could begrudge McDormand the Best Actress award for Nomadland. She’s stunning throughout. That said, she’s a bit of a usual suspect and I was actually rooting for Alfre Woodard (Clemency) or Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman).

Daniel Kaluuya won the Best Supporting Actor AwardPA Media
Daniel Kaluuya won the Best Supporting Actor AwardPA Media

I felt similarly torn about Yuh-Jung Youn. Her supporting turn in Minari is delightful. The 73-year-old is perfect as a potty-mouthed Korean matriarch who intrigues, as well as freaks out, her conformist grandkids. But I found Maria Bakalova, as the daughter in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, more memorable. And the same goes for Kosar Ali, as the shrewd and loyal best-friend in London-set teen drama, Rocks.

In the Supporting Actor category, it’s so right that Daniel Kaluuya – bringing ground-breaking political activist Fred Hampton to life - won for Judas and the Black Messiah. Kaluuya’s poise and vulnerability in that movie is remarkable. That said, a bit of me hoped Leslie Odom Jr might win, so that Regina King’s blisteringly entertaining slice of history, One Night in Miami, would get its moment in the sun.

Kingsley Ben-Adir (who plays Malcolm X in One Night in Miami) was nominated in the Rising Star Award category, but was beaten by Rocks’ lead actress, the amazing Bukky Bakray. Rocks is one of the best films of the year, but so is One Night in Miami. Why does it keep getting passed over?

Bukky Bakray, winner of the Bafta Rising Star Awardvia REUTERS
Bukky Bakray, winner of the Bafta Rising Star Awardvia REUTERS

Other fantastic films that wound up with zilch were Saint Maud, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Da Five Bloods and Quo Vadis, Aida? I’m especially gutted that Jasmila Zbanic’s wry and wrenching Bosnian war drama was beaten, in the Film Not in the English Language section, by Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round. The latter – though exquisitely acted, edited and shot – is shockingly sentimental. If Another Round ever gets remade in America, with someone like Ben Affleck in the lead, it will be perfectly obvious it’s not a patch on Vinterberg’s subversive debut, Festen.

But hey. Another Round is dedicated to Vinterberg’s daughter Ida, who died, age 19, in 2019, and his tribute to her, last night, was one of the most moving moments of the evening. I met Ida briefly, in 2005, while she was waiting for her dad to finish doing interviews for Dear Wendy. What with that and the many clips of Boseman, Bafta 2021 was nothing if not emotional.

But what a triumph for Zhao. We’ve been told, for so many years, that you need “balls” to make movies. No ya don’t. Zhao is more than a promising young woman. She’s arrived.

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