LONDON — Spies were taking on silent stars in London Sunday, as espionage thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and mute movie "The Artist" faced off at the British Academy Film Awards.
"The Artist" has 12 nominations and "Tinker Tailor" 11 for Britain's equivalent of the Oscars, with each up for best picture and director, leading men Jean Dujardin and Gary Oldman competing for best actor.
Bookies gave "The Artist" the edge, making the French film odds-on favorite to continue its awards-season success. It has already won three Golden Globes, and has 10 Oscar nominations.
Dujardin, who plays a silent screen icon eclipsed by the talkies, said the "The Artist'''s appeal lay in its accessibility.
"It's a simple story," he said. "It's a love story. It's universal. And there's a cute dog" — Jack Russell terrier Uggie, who almost steals the film from his two-legged co-stars.
"The Artist" took an early lead, winning prizes for cinematography and for Ludovic Bource's sprightly musical score.
Presenting the first award, for special effects, Cuba Gooding Jr. paid tribute to singer Whitney Houston, who died in Los Angeles on Saturday.
"Whitney, I will always love you," he said — a reference to one of her best-known songs.
The effects prize went to "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2," the final film in the magical franchise and the top-grossing British movie of the year.
George Clooney was the best-actor favorite for Hawaiian family drama "The Descendants," with Meryl Streep considered likely to win the best actress trophy for her much-praised performance as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."
The British prizes, known as BAFTAs, are considered a strong indicator of likely success at Hollywood's Academy Awards, to be held on Feb. 26.
Clooney, Streep, Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz, Colin Firth and Judi Dench were among the stars braving the London cold and bouts of sleet to walk the red carpet before a televised ceremony, hosted by comedian, writer and actor Stephen Fry, at the Royal Opera House.
"The Help" star Viola Davis, a best-actress nominee, arrived in a pink Valentino "eco gown" made from recycled plastic bottles.
Martin Scorsese's Parisian fantasy "Hugo" has nine BAFTA nominations, and there are six for moviemaking saga "My Week With Marilyn" and five each for Deep South drama "The Help" and equine adventure "War Horse."
But many BAFTA-watchers are focused on the contest between French froth and British grit.
"The Artist," a buoyant black-and-white Gallic take on the golden age of Hollywood, has become an unlikely Oscars favorite.
"Tinker Tailor," an atmospheric adaptation of John le Carre's Cold War classic, has received rave reviews but has so far been snubbed during the U.S. awards season.
Both films are up for best picture, along with "The Descendants," ''Drive" and "The Help."
The best actor contest pits Clooney, Oldman and Dujardin against Michael Fassbender for sex-addiction saga "Shame" and Pitt for baseball drama "Moneyball."
The movie has been well received in the U.K., despite focusing on a sport few British people understand.
"Don't tell anyone it's got baseball in it," Pitt advised. "It might as well be about cricket."
The best actress category includes two performers playing real-life icons — Streep as Thatcher and Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in "My Week With Marilyn."
Co-star Kenneth Branagh praised Williams' "transcendent performance" in the film, which charts Monroe's experience making the 1957 comedy "The Prince and the Showgirl" with Laurence Olivier
Branagh has a best supporting actor nomination for playing Olivier, and said the late actor was one of his inspirations.
"I wrote to him once when I was 19 and asked for advice," Branagh said. "And he wrote back: 'Just have a bash and hope for the best.'"
The other best-actress nominees are Berenice Bejo for "The Artist," Tilda Swinton for "We Need to Talk About Kevin" and Davis for "The Help."
The multinational best-director contest pits Michel Hazanavicius for "The Artist" against Denmark's Nicolas Winding Refn, for the turbocharged "Drive," Sweden's Tomas Alfredson for "Tinker Tailor," Britain's Lynne Ramsay for "We Need to Talk About Kevin" and Scorsese for "Hugo."
Scorsese is also nominated in the documentary category, for "George Harrison: Living in the Material World," and is due to receive a the BAFTA Fellowship for his "outstanding and exceptional" contribution to cinema in films including "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull."
Veteran British actor John Hurt also is being honored for a career that includes memorable roles in "Elephant Man," ''The Naked Civil Servant" and "Alien."
In recent years, the British awards have helped underdog films gain momentum for Hollywood success.
In 2010, Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" won seven BAFTAs, including best film; it went on to take eight Oscars. Last year "The King's Speech" won seven BAFTAs and four Oscars, including best picture.
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless