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'Slumdog' Has Its Day at British Independent Film Awards

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Angelo Valentino/British Independent Film Awards

Danny Boyle found himself in an especially cold and wet part of London on the evening of Nov. 30 but his thoughts were clearly further afield. One would have expected him to be entirely jubilant, considering he had just picked up both the “Best British Film” and “Best Director” prizes at the British Independent Film Awards for “Slumdog Millionaire.” The film was shot on location in Mumbai which had made headlines the previous week for far more tragic reasons as real life scenes of terrorist violence were played out on its streets. Mr. Boyle was mindful that his film had gained a sense of topicality that no sane man would ever have wished for.

“We didn’t have any of this in mind when we set out,” he declared mournfully. “We just wanted to make a film which celebrated that city. I know it will recover because that’s the spirit that the film celebrates. They will overcome. I hope the film is worthy of what is still a great city.”

The atrocities in India were a regular talking point during the evening both for Mr. Boyle and his lead actor Dev Patel, who picked up the trophy for “Best Newcomer.” Mr. Patel won for his portrayal of an impoverished teen who suddenly finds himself both enormously wealthy and under intense scrutiny after scooping the jackpot on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

There was still some time for the intended business of the evening: celebrating British independent film and talking about exciting future projects. Mr. Boyle cautiously revealed that he may return to the “28 Days”/“Weeks Later” franchise for what he described as a “very odd end” to the story. He also expressed hope that he will revisit the film that made his name, “Trainspotting,“ by bringing Irvine Welsh’s follow-up novel to the screen.

“We’d like to do it when the actors are significantly older,” he said optimistically, “so they look more middle-aged. The problem is, actors being actors; they don’t age like the rest of us.”

Actors of consummate youth and beauty were much in evidence at this year’s ceremony. The biggest buzz of the night was generated by Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller turning up – sharp intake of breath – together! Both actresses were nominated but went away empty handed, assured of a place in all the gossip columns the following day.

Not all the nominees were marquee names, but that is the nature of the BIFAs, which are a relatively low-key kick–off to the awards season. Michael Fassbender, for instance, is tall and chiseled enough to have been in “300,” but it was his performance as emaciated hunger-striker Bobby Sands in “Hunger” that saw him collect the “Best Actor” award. The harrowing role was one that might be expected to have had a lasting affect on the actor, but he had already put it aside and was talking about his upcoming appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s war movie, “Inglourious Basterds.”

Noting that having played Mr. Pink in an amateur stage production of “Reservoir Dogs” may well have helped swing it for the actor, Mr. Fassbender admitted that the loquacious Mr. Tarantino more than lived up to his reputation as chief film geek. “You can name any film you like,” he explained, “It can be from Italy in 1932 or whatever and he will know about it and be able to give you a scene from it. He’s like a walking encyclopaedia of film!”

“Hunger” was another multi-award winner, also picking up “Best Technical Achievement” for the cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and “Best Debut Director” for the artist Steve McQueen. There was a pair of trophies for Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky.” The film’s star, Sally Hawkins, missed out on the “Best Actress” award to Vera Farmiga from “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” but her co-star Alexis Zegerman walked off with “Best Supporting Actress“ for her role as Ms. Hawkins’s relentlessly supportive best friend.

Ms. Zegerman, a film debutante, seemed the most surprised winner of the evening. “I was up against some biggies,” she said, “So I was really shocked. It took me a while to realize that I was here for an awards ceremony that I was involved in and hadn’t just bummed in on somebody else’s ticket like I normally do.” Like several of the victorious performers she laid much credit at the door of her director. “Improvisational filmmaking is a bit like jumping into the abyss, but Mike Leigh is so celebrated that you trust him and know that you are going on an amazing roller-coaster ride,” she enthused.

Meanwhile, the “Best Supporting Actor” award went to Eddie Marsan, also for “Happy-Go-Lucky,” who proved a most gracious winner and – thankfully – much more well-adjusted than the perpetually frustrated cab driver he played in the film.

Some relatively older hands were also recognized. David Thewlis, who also has much to thank Mr. Leigh for, was given the “Richard Harris Award” for outstanding contribution to film. Rather than seeing this as a signal to rest on his laurels the laid-back, Mr. Thewlis regarded it as “a nice award to win. It’s not so much a lifetime achievement award as a ‘so far you’ve done pretty well, David’ award.”

Michael Sheen was handed the “Variety Award,” thanks to a career that has seen him create uncannily accurate portrayals of both the celebrated and the notorious including Tony Blair and David Frost. He admitted to being close to tears when he accepted his prize before taking time to explain how he gets under the skins of his famous alter-egos. “I do the same work on every character,” he elaborated, “watching everything I can watch, reading and listening. Once I get into the situation where I feel I could improvise them, be put into any situation and know how they would react, then it becomes a pleasure to be them.” The crescent-shaped smile that broke out from behind his curly beard will no doubt be a considerable asset when he appears as the Cheshire Cat in Tim Burton’s forthcoming “Alice in Wonderland.”

The 2008 BIFAs began late (as always) and bizarrely with ubiquitous host James Nesbitt being spotted backstage with three muscular figures who were clad in little more than black and white body paint, before opening the show by singing “Fly Me to the Moon” as if he were the Gorgonzola of lounge singers. At the end of it all just desserts had been meted out and British independent film along with the talent behind it had been suitably lauded. At one point during the evening Mr. Boyle had said “Movies are just movies in the end: somewhere where we can lose ourselves for a couple of hours.” If there is one thing that the BIFAs illustrate it is that, sometimes, films can be so much more.

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