LONDON — A stuttering monarch, a neurotic ballerina and an enterprising computer nerd face off Sunday for Britain's top film prizes — a foretaste of the Academy Awards in Hollywood later this month.
"The King's Speech" is favorite to be crowned the big winner at the British Academy Film Awards. It has 14 nominations, including best picture and best actor for Colin Firth, who plays a king struggling to find his voice in his country's hour of need.
It faces strong competition from psychosexual ballet thriller "Black Swan," nominated in 12 categories, and Facebook-founding drama "The Social Network," which has six nominations and growing momentum following wins at the Golden Globes and other awards.
Sunday's ceremony provides a curtain raiser for the Feb. 27 Oscars, offering a mix of gray skies, British style and Hollywood glamour. Stars including Firth, "Black Swan'''s Natalie Portman and "Harry Potter'''s Emma Watson are expected to walk the 123-meter (135-yard) red carpet at London's Royal Opera House before the televised awards show.
Mind-bending saga "Inception" has nine nominations, while limb-lopping endurance story "127 Hours" and Coen brothers Western "True Grit" have eight each.
But "The King's Speech" is the film to beat. Perfectly timed in a year that sees the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and impeccably acted by Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter, the movie is a flag-waving British triumph.
It tells the true story of King George VI, thrust unexpectedly onto the throne by his elder brother's abdication, and his battle to overcome a stammer with the help of an unconventional speech therapist.
With its eve-of-World War II setting and blend of deference and irreverence, "The King's Speech" has struck a popular chord around the world. The film has already earned many times its reported 15 million-pound ($24 million) budget and is favored to take the best-picture prize over "The Social Network," ''Black Swan," ''Inception" and "True Grit."
"Films like this depend entirely on what people say about them," Firth said this week after being named actor of the year at the London Critics' Circle Film Awards "They don't depend on the money because there wasn't much, they don't depend on a big studio machine or a big financial apparatus."
Firth is heavy favorite to win the best actor prize, in a strong field that includes Jesse Eisenberg for playing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg "The Social Network," James Franco for "127 Hours," Javier Bardem for "Biutiful" and Jeff Bridges for "True Grit."
Firth has already won a best-actor trophy at the Golden Globes and is a favorite for an Oscar. A win would be the 50-year-old actor's second BAFTA in a row — he took the acting prize last year for "A Single Man."
Portman's performance as a tormented dancer in "Black Swan" faces competition from Annette Bening and Julianne Moore for lesbian family drama "The Kids Are All Right," Noomi Rapace for Swedish thriller "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld for "True Grit."
Best-director nominees are David Fincher for "The Social Network," Tom Hooper for "The King's Speech," Danny Boyle for "127 Hours," Darren Aronofsky for "Black Swan" and Christopher Nolan for "Inception."
David Parfitt, deputy chairman of the British film academy, said this has been "a very good year for the Brits," with British movies and talent making a strong showing at international awards.
But Britain's movie industry faces uncertainty amid an economic slowdown and government funding cuts. "The King's Speech" was partly funded by the U.K. Film Council, a body recently abolished by the country's Conservative-led government
The ceremony will try to lift the mood and celebrate British success, giving an award to the money-minting "Harry Potter" franchise for outstanding British contribution to cinema.
Christopher Lee, the aristocratic 88-year-old actor who chilled generations as Count Dracula in a series of Hammer Studios horror classics, will receive a lifetime achievement award.
The awards, known as BAFTAs, are considered a strong indicator of possible Oscars glory. Last year, Iraq war drama "The Hurt Locker" won six BAFTAs, including best picture — then repeated the feat at the Oscars.