Sam Mendes’s nerve-shredding war drama 1917 was the big winner at the 2020 Bafta film awards, on an evening when the movie industry’s diversity problem hovered ominously in the background.
1917, which tells the story of two young soldiers sent on a perilous, near-impossible mission to prevent an otherwise certain massacre, won seven Baftas including best film and outstanding British film, best director for Mendes, sound, production design, special visual effects and, for Roger Deakins, best cinematography – his fifth Bafta.
In the lead acting categories, Joaquin Phoenix won for Joker and Renée Zellweger was given her third career Bafta for Judy.
The preamble to this year’s ceremony was dominated by complaints about the the lack of diversity. Bafta itself expressed “disappointment” and “frustration” after the nominations were made without any actors of colour in the main acting categories, and no women up for best director.
But more than words are needed, many in the film industry believe. Steve McQueen told the Guardian that the awards risked becoming “irrelevant, redundant and of no interest or importance” unless action were taken.
Cynthia Erivo, a glaring omission in many eyes, after her much-praised performance in Harriet, was asked to perform her song Stand Up from the film at the ceremony. She said no, speaking of her disappointment at the lack of representation.
The #BaftasSoWhite outcry was tackled directly by Phoenix in his acceptance speech. He said he was appreciative but conflicted, “because so many of my fellow actors that are deserving don’t have that same privilege”. He added: “I think we send a very clear message to people of colour that you are not welcome here, people who have contributed so much to our medium and our industry.”
Prince William, Bafta’s president, also alluded to the controversy in his closing remarks, saying that, not for the first time, “we find ourselves talking again about the need to do more to ensure diversity in the sector and the awards process. That simply cannot be right in this day and age.”
He said Bafta officials shared his frustration and continue to work “tirelessly” to make sure creative talent is discovered and supported. He added that a full review of the awards process would take place.
Before that, the closest anyone got to anything approaching controversy was Taika Waititi, accepting the best adapted screenplay award for Jojo Rabbit. “Coming from the colonies,” it was good, he said, to “take a little bit of your gold back home where it belongs.”
Rebel Wilson, presenting the best director award, acidly remarked she could just not do what the nominees did. “Honestly, I just don’t have the balls.”
The awards by and large went to the people predicted by pundits and bookies. 1917 was the biggest winner, but the Bafta record of nine, for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1971, remains intact.
Phoenix was a shoo-in for best actor, with William Hill offering unappealing odds of 1/25 on. Bafta voters obliged, choosing him from the all-white shortlist that also contained Leonardo DiCaprio, Adam Driver, Taron Egerton and Jonathan Pryce.
Joker, a supervillain origins story, had led the pack going in to the ceremony, with 11 nominations. That delighted many but left some baffled, with the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw describing it as “a mediocre and overrated film… which has less interest than the viral video of the Portsmouth kebab shop fight.” In the end, Joker came away with three awards, including best original score and the first ever Bafta for casting.
Zellweger, who returned to acting in 2016 after a six-year break, was also odds-on favourite to win for Judy. Her portrayal of Judy Garland, in the final, calamitous year of her life, had been widely praised.
Brad Pitt continued his awards season success, winning best supporting actor for his role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – although he was unable to continue his run of well-scripted, funny and modest acceptance speeches, as “family obligations” kept him away from the London ceremony.
Instead, Margot Robbie read his speech: “Hey Britain, heard you just became single … welcome to the club. Wishing you the best with the divorce settlement.” Pitt, she said, would name the Bafta “Harry … because he is really excited about bringing it back to the States with him.”
The Netflix film Marriage Story won one Bafta: best supporting actress for Laura Dern, who plays the tough-talking and brilliant divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw. The Irishman, also backed by Netflix, had been nominated for 10 prizes but left empty-handed.
The ceremony was presented for the first time by Graham Norton, a safe pair of hands enlisted after Joanna Lumley’s much criticised spell in the role. He went down well on the whole – though he was not to all tastes. Norton said he was proof that there was more than one Irishman there who “seems to go on and on”. Cut to a stony-faced Al Pacino.
As part of Bafta’s efforts to be a more sustainable organisation, single-use plastic was banned and guests were asked to think harder about what they wore. That could mean wearing something they had worn before, going down the clothes-hire route, or choosing a designer with green credentials.
Andy Serkis received an award for outstanding British contribution to cinema for his pioneering performance motion-capture work creating characters such as Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboots and the big gorilla in King Kong.
Bafta’s highest award, the fellowship, went to the producer Kathleen Kennedy whose stellar roster of films spans from ET to last year’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.