'Gravity', '12 Years a Slave' battle for Baftas

LONDON - "Gravity" leads the nominations for the Baftas on Sunday, but the harrowing "12 Years a Slave" is tipped to win the top honours at the last major awards ceremony before the Oscars.

Hollywood stars are due to pack out the Royal Opera House in London for the glitzy red carpet event, attended by Prince William and hosted for a ninth time by actor Stephen Fry.

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards are a useful guide to which way the Academy Awards might go on March 2.

Last year "Argo" won for best film, Daniel Day-Lewis for best actor, and Christoph Waltz and Anne Hathaway in the best supporting categories - awards replicated at the Oscars.

With British-made films such as space drama "Gravity" proving box office hits, and UK actors earning critical acclaim, the Baftas seem likely to reward home-grown talent.

"Gravity" has 11 nominations; Golden Globe winners "12 Years a Slave" and "American Hustle" were each nominated in 10 categories, while "Captain Phillips" was nominated nine times.

"Behind the Candelabra" and "Saving Mr. Banks" have five nominations each.

"12 Years a Slave", starring British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free black man who is kidnapped and enslaved in the United States, is nominated in five of the big six categories.

Bookmakers have "12 Years a Slave" as the 1/8 runaway favourite for best film, with Ejiofor even more heavily odds-on for best actor at 1/10.

Cate Blanchett is also 1/10 for best actress for her title role portrayal in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine".

"Gravity" director Alfonso Cuaron is a 1/2 favourite in his category.

"These really are the precursor to the Oscars," said Joe Crilly, spokesman for betting chain William Hill.

"Usually you have a little battle on your hands - at least for best film - where normally two are relatively close, but this year it's strange that there are so many odds-on favourites," he told AFP.

"There's also the British bias that you generally tend to see at the Baftas.

"If you've got an incredible performance by a non-British actor you will always see them do quite well. But Ejiofor puts in a very good performance and being British we think he shades it over Leonardo DiCaprio."

The Best Film Award is being disputed between "12 Years a Slave", "American Hustle", "Captain Phillips", "Gravity" and "Philomena".

- Special award for Mirren -

Judi Dench is nominated for drama "Philomena" in the best actress category - a record 15th Bafta acting nomination taking her one clear of Meryl Streep.

Workers at the Royal Opera House have already been working out the seating plan for the likes of DiCaprio, Blanchett, Dench and Sandra Bullock.

Fellow nominees Matt Damon, Michael Fassbender, Bradley Cooper, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and Martin Scorsese will also be treading the red carpet.

However, they might be squelching down it under umbrellas if the storms that have been lashing Britain since New Year continue.

Helping to present the awards will be the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irons, Kiefer Sutherland, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Stanley Tucci and Uma Thurman.

Bafta's highest accolade, the Academy Fellowship, is being given this year to Helen Mirren, "in recognition of her exceptional contribution to film".

Prince William, second in line to the throne and the academy's president, will present her with the award.

Previous recipients include Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor, Christopher Lee, Anthony Hopkins and Scorsese.

Mirren, a four-time Bafta winner, is "one of the most outstanding actresses of her generation," said the academy's chairman John Willis.

"Helen's incredibly successful career is testament to the determination, dedication and skill she brings to each of her roles."

Besides the regular categories, Bafta also has an Outstanding British Film award.

"Gravity", "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom", "Philomena", "Rush", "Saving Mr. Banks" and "The Selfish Giant" are in the running this year.