The mask at hand

An insider's take on the front-runners and dark horses in the major BAFTA categories

Best film
"The Departed"
"The Last King of Scotland"
"Little Miss Sunshine"
"The Queen"

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Golden Globe winner "Babel" is the only movie on this year's British Academy of Film and Television Arts best film list that hadn't been released for public consumption in the U.K. before the nominations were unveiled Jan. 12. The other four pictures angling for the top prize at the Orange British Academy Film Awards have all garnered good boxoffice returns and were warmly received by the press here. But the inclusion of "Babel," Paramount Vantage's gritty, violent drama about the difficulty human beings face in trying to communicate with one another, reflects the power of screeners and the personal popularity Inarritu enjoys with much of BAFTA's membership. The director previously won a foreign-language film nod from the organization for "Amores Perros" in 2002 and is well-connected with the higher echelons of film members.

But for most of the members, the winner of the best film plaudit is likely to be one of two films that lost out to "Babel" in the Globes drama race: Miramax's "The Queen," whose star, Helen Mirren, took home the Globe for best actress in a drama, and Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed," which garnered the director trophy for Martin Scorsese. The one obstacle that might prevent "Queen" sweeping to power is that BAFTA's members are not entirely convinced whether the project is a film or a modern-day Shakespearean history play. Additionally, "Departed," hailed by some of the press in the U.K. as Scorsese's best picture since 1990's "Goodfellas," has garnered a lot of support. But having been released in the U.K. on Jan. 19, "Babel" might not have enough time to accumulate media attention and boxoffice success for the voters before the awards ceremony, set to take place Feb. 11. Fox Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland" could prove to be this year's dark horse for the big prize.

Aside from Forest Whitaker's Golden Globe-winning performance, the Uganda-set tale, which opened the 2006 London Film Festival, is regarded by many as a triumph for the British industry, having taken more than seven years to get to the big screen. Of course, the BAFTA membership is renowned for enjoying a good chuckle, but in recent years, comedy winners in the best film category have been few, making Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine" the most obvious outsider in this year's best film race. That said, the quirky, dysfunctional-family film could come from behind to join 1994's "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and 1997's "The Full Monty" as laugh-out-loud winners.

Performance by an actor in a leading role
Daniel Craig, "Casino Royale"
Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Departed"
Richard Griffiths, "The History Boys"
Peter O'Toole, "Venus"
Forest Whitaker, "The Last King of Scotland"

The clear favorite in this category is Forest Whitaker for his breathless performance as Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland." Given the awards-season success Whitaker has experienced with wins at both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, a loss at the BAFTAs would signal a major upset. Still, the strangest and most aggressive challenge comes from Daniel Craig for his role as one of Her Majesty's secret servers, James Bond, in the spy's latest outing, Sony's "Casino Royale." Craig's inclusion garnered coverage in British newspapers, with BAFTA film committee chair David Parfitt quoted in the media as saying Craig's nomination possibly reflected "his range as an actor."

Aside from Craig -- the first Bond to be nominated to date -- Leonardo DiCaprio for "The Departed," Richard Griffiths for Searchlight's "The History Boys" and Peter O'Toole for Miramax's "Venus" also are nominated. O'Toole knows all about BAFA Awards, having won one for "Lawrence of Arabia" in 1963. But despite his bravura turn as a quick-witted actor well past his prime, the subject matter -- about an elderly man lusting after much younger flesh -- might give BAFTA voters pause. Griffiths plays a very central role in "History Boys," the big-screen version of Alan Bennett's play, but in a largely ensemble cast, the odds are against him. DiCaprio, who won a Golden Globe for 2004's "The Aviator" and was shortlisted for the same role in the same category at the 2005 BAFA Awards, will likely miss out again. For the sake of star power, BAFTA organizers will, however, want him to make the hope-filled trip for the second year in a row.

The David Lean Award for Achievement in Direction
"Babel," Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
"The Departed," Martin Scorsese
"Little Miss Sunshine," Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
"The Queen," Stephen Frears
"United 93," Paul Greengrass

Five of the six nominated directors in the running for this year's director prize were behind the lens of four of the best film contenders. How so?

This year's director race includes a shared nomination slot for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for the pair's work on "Little Miss Sunshine," an unusual state of affairs for the BAFTA membership chapter of directors on which to vote. BAFTA spent a couple of days trying to find out if that had ever happened before -- concluding that in this category, according to organizers, it hasn't. This award is clearly the most difficult to call of all of the main categories.

All the directors are much admired by fellow filmmakers for the movies listed, and the chapter that votes on the eventual winner will have gone through some heavy hand-wringing trying to decide. Scorsese won a trio of BAFTAs for "Goodfellas" back in 1991, but despite receiving multiple nominations since then, he hasn't been back onstage to pick up more -- though at least he doesn't have the "always the bridesmaid never the bride" tag that he suffers from at the Oscars.

This year, Scorsese's big challenge comes from a brace of Brits: Stephen Frears and Paul Greengrass are both looking to secure their first gold mask for directing, and both enjoy fantastic reputations for their craft and ability. Many are talking about Greengrass and his bravery in making Universal's "United 93," but Frears represents major competition after conjuring up real cinematic impact for his fictionalized look at the British royal family in the immediate aftermath of Princess Diana's death. Working against Frears is the sheer number of other nominations "The Queen" has garnered: It's repped in nine other categories. Inarritu for "Babel" and the dynamic duo behind the lens of "Sunshine" are by no means out of the running in this category, but most observers are predicting a different recipient for the nod.

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Penelope Cruz, "Volver"
Judi Dench, "Notes on a Scandal"
Helen Mirren, "The Queen"
Meryl Streep, "The Devil Wears Prada"
Kate Winslet, "Little Children"

Billed as the battle of the Dames because both Helen Mirren and Judi Dench carry the title bestowed by the U.K. monarch, the winner will probably be Golden Globe success story Mirren. Her role as Queen Elizabeth II in "The Queen" has resulted in reams of newsprint, and there is no doubt among observers and commentators alike that Mirren is the front-runner. Dench might have proved a more worthy adversary in the race but for the fact that the success of Searchlight's "Notes on a Scandal" is largely the product of a well-executed, expert screener campaign. Dench most recently took home the BAFA prize in this category for "Iris" in 2002 and is a perennial favorite in the actress category nominations, but she is likely to miss out by royal appointment.

As for another worthy contender, it is a huge endorsement of the quality of her performance -- and Pathe's expert lobbying -- that Penelope Cruz has been nominated for her Spanish-speaking star turn in Pedro Almodovar's Sony Pictures Classics release "Volver," the only nomination for someone not speaking English in this category. Kate Winslet's performance in director/co-writer Todd Field's New Line drama "Little Children" is unlikely to see her receive her second supporting actress BAFA (she won for 1995's "Sense and Sensibility"), while Meryl Streep's subtle performance as an impossible-to-please magazine editor in Fox's "The Devil Wears Prada" is not expected by observers and critics to land her another bronze face to go with her 1982 BAFA win in the actress category for "The French Lieutenant's Woman."