A night at the Baftas

Ben Affleck steals a march in the race to the Oscars.

On Sunday evening the British Academy Film and Television Awards (better known as the Baftas) were held at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The red carpet was a soggy scene, and Hollywood’s hottest intoned for many hours on meteorology. It was a happy television audience when Stephen Fry eventually brought his purple prose to the pulpit.

Ben Affleck won for his direction of Argo, which in turn was named best film, gaining it more yardage in its sprint toward Oscar success. Lincoln has been reclining in an armchair on the edge of the finish line for months, and may very way topple over it, with a yawn, by Oscar night. This is very difficult to call, but Argo’s thighs are certainly pumping after a resplendent Sunday in London. Quentin Tarantino’s original screenplay for Django Unchained was honoured. This makes coy amends for Tarantino’s inexplicable exclusion from the director category.
 
The acting categories went according to expectations – for the most part. As inevitable as Stephen Fry getting a gag about lubricant into his script, Anne Hathaway was awarded best supporting actress for her role as Fantine in Les Miserables, and the sun shone on the nothing new as Daniel Day-Lewis was named best actor. One is in mild emotional limbo as his performance in Lincoln wins another award (and continues its course toward an Oscar); not because it is undeserving, but because Joaquin Phoenix must remain un-lauded, left clawing at his beard at the back of the hall, having delivered such a performance in The Master, so twitching and boggled and brilliant. Christoph Waltz was awarded best supporting actor for Django Unchained, and in his studied and choppy English delivered a charming speech in which he praised Quentin Tarantino – "You silver-penned devil!" – against impending tears. This builds on his victory at the Golden Globes, though it would remain a surprise if he defeats Tommy Lee Jones, Alan Arkin and Philip Seymour Hoffman at the Oscars considering he took the statue for a comparable performance in Inglorious Basterds.
 
The British Academy’s compliance ceased at the best actress category, however, as they chose Emmanuelle Riva over Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain. Although one’s money is still safest behind Lawrence for the Oscar, the pluck it took to choose a 85 year old, whose heyday was the French New Wave, might re-conjure the dissident poltergeist which spooked the American Academy into voting for The Artist, and open minds to the possibility of making Riva their unlikely recipient. 
 
A number of the technical categories this year can be treated with more interest than the shoulder-shrugging they usually receive. Les Miserables was given the award for best sound in recognition of its recording technique, wherein actors perform their pieces live, dictating the tempo of their numbers rather than miming to a pre-recording (reservedly labeled ‘revolutionary’ in the making of musicals). In addition, Life of Pi was given the special visual effects award for a project that included the lavish creation of Richard Parker, the digital tiger, work which has been credited with making a significant contribution to the union of technology and art. 
 
Below is a complete list of the winners.
 
BEST FILM: Argo- Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney 
 
OUTSTANDING BRITISH FILM: Skyfall - Sam Mendes, Michael G.Wilson, Barbara Broccoli, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan 
 
OUTSTANDING DEBUT BY A BRITISH WRITER, DIRECTOR OR PRODUCER: Bart Layton (Director), Dimitri Doganis (Producer) – The Imposter
 
FILM NOT IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: Amour- Michael Haneke, Margaret Ménégoz 
 
DOCUMENTARY: Searching for Sugar Man- Malik Bendjelloul, Simon Chinn 
 
ANIMATED FILM: Brave - Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman 
 
DIRECTOR: Argo – Ben Affleck
 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino 
 
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: - David O. Russell 
 
LEADING ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
 
LEADING ACTRESS: Emmanuelle Riva - Amour 
 
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained 
 
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Anne Hathaway – Les Miserables
 
ORIGINAL MUSIC: Skyfall - Thomas Newman 
 
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda 
 
EDITING: Argo - William Goldenberg 
 
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Les Miserables - Eve Stewart, Anna Lynch-Robinson 
 
COSTUME DESIGN: Anna Karenina - Jacqueline Durran 
 
MAKE UP & HAIR: Les Miserables - Lisa Westcott 
 
SOUND: Les Miserables - Simon Hayes, Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, Jonathan Allen, Lee Walpole, John Warhurst 
 
SPECIAL VISUAL EFFECTS: Life of Pi - Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer 
 
SHORT ANIMATION: The Making of Longbird - Will Anderson, Ainslie Henderson 
 
SHORT FILM: Swimmer - Lynne Ramsay, Peter Carlton, Diarmid Scrimshaw 
 
THE EE RISING STAR AWARD (voted for by the public): Juno Temple 
 
OUTSTANDING BRITISH CONTRIBUTION TO CINEMA: Tessa Ross 
 
THE BAFTA FELLOWSHIP: Alan Parker 
Ben Affleck at the Baftas (Photograph: Getty Images)
Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear