Silent movie The Artist started out as hot favourite on a cold London night as the BAFTA awards ceremony got under way on Sunday, with Meryl Streep poised to win leading actress for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

The Artist, a French-made black-and-white film set in Hollywood in the 1920s and 30s, is up for 12 awards, British Cold War espionage thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has 11 nominations and Martin Scorsese's 3-D adventure Hugo has nine.

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards are not always an accurate predictor of what is to come at the Oscars, but they are the most coveted film honours outside of the United States.

This has become a much bigger deal in the past 10 years or so. It really helps films, said George Clooney on the red carpet leading to the awards ceremony venue, the Royal Opera House in the popular Covent Garden area of London.

Clooney is the favourite to win the leading actor BAFTA for his role as a man steering his family through troubled times while his wife is in a coma in The Descendants. He is also up for an adapted screenplay prize for The Ides of March.

The Artist, the story of a star of silent movies whose career is destroyed by the advent of talkies, has already won big at the Golden Globes and a good night at the BAFTAs would give it a further lift two weeks ahead of the Academy Awards.

Asked to account for the success of a silent movie in black and white, Berenice Bejo, the leading actress in the film and wife of the director Michel Hazanavicius, said: You don't need words to say I love you.

Bookmakers William Hill gave The Artist odds of 1/6 to win the best film BAFTA, far ahead of Tinker Tailor. The other contenders are The Descendants, Drive and The Help.

Viola Davis, who plays a maid facing discrimination in The Help, a Civil Rights drama, braved the red carpet and the cold in a pink eco-friendly Valentino dress she said was made out of plastic soda bottles.

Nominated for the leading actress BAFTA, Davis has already won the Screen Actors Guild prize for her role in The Help.

I thought it was going to be either the biggest success or the biggest failure, she said, citing the film's harrowing subject matter.

MARGARET THATCHER VS MARILYN MONROE

But Streep was the 2/7 favourite to win the leading actress BAFTA, comfortably ahead of Davis, her nearest rival, according to bookmakers William Hill.

With a Golden Globe already in the handbag, Streep has won plaudits for her portrayal of Britain's first female prime minister, whom she plays both as a firebrand Conservative leader at the height of her power and as a frail elderly woman suffering from memory loss.

Reviews of The Iron Lady have been lukewarm in Thatcher's home country. The choice to dwell on the subject of her dementia has been criticised, not least by current British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is also a Conservative.

Streep has a long history at the BAFTAs, having been nominated 14 times stretching back to 1979. She won once, for her role in The French Lieutenant's Woman in 1981.

Completing the line-up in the actress category are Bejo as an up-and-coming actress in The Artist, Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn and Tilda Swinton as the traumatised mother of a teenage killer in We Need To Talk About Kevin.

My Week with Marilyn, set during the filming of the 1957 comedy The Prince and the Showgirl starring Monroe and Laurence Olivier, is nominated for six awards including supporting actor for Kenneth Branagh, who plays Olivier.

On the red carpet, Branagh praised Williams' transcending performance as a troubled but intoxicating Monroe. He also shared some advice he had received from Olivier after writing to the acting legend when considering an acting career.

Just have a bash and hope for the best, were the words of wisdom from Olivier, according to Branagh.

In the leading actor category, bookies' favourite Clooney faces a strong challenge from Gary Oldman, who plays the British spy George Smiley in Tinker Tailor, an adaptation of a classic thriller by novelist John Le Carre. The other nominees are Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Brad Pitt (Moneyball) and Michael Fassbender (Shame).

Hugo, which has done well on the U.S. awards circuit, is Scorsese's first family movie. Set in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, it explores the magic of the early days of movie-making. Scorsese is also nominated for his documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World.

However his two movies fare at the BAFTAs, Scorsese will not leave London empty-handed after the ceremony at the Royal Opera House. He will receive a BAFTA Fellowship celebrating his life in cinema.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)