At halfway mark Britain's Leigh is Cannes favourite

It may not sound like Cannes glam, but as the festival hits the halfway mark the tale of a happily married middle-aged couple by Britain's Mike Leigh leads the field in the race for the Palme d'Or.

The world's biggest annual film event so far has seen less hype and less Hollywood cash as rain and chill washed out beach parties and Iceland's troublesome volcano added travel chaos.

So the buzz over Leigh's ordinary people mirrors the festival's ordinary problems.

A slew of movies screening at the 63rd Cannes festival play out family and marital dramas, with the Iraq war, France's colonial fall-out in Algeria and the Russian front in World War II providing wider historical themes.

A previous Palme winner for "Secrets and Lies" in 1996, Leigh with his "Another Year" is currently the critics' unanimous choice for the Palme, to be handed out Sunday at the close of the 12-day event.

But as is often the case at Cannes, with festival-goers so far treated to 10 of the 19 films competing for the top prize, critics remain divided over the rest of the field.

Critics cited in trade papers Screen and Le Film Francais both tip Leigh as potential Palme winner to date.

But an international panel of film supremos in Screen believe a 16th-century costume drama by France's Bertrand Tavernier, "The Princess of Montpensier", may be headed for the stars, along with a rare offering from Africa, "A Screaming Man" by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun.

French critics on the other hand favour "Biutiful" by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the Mexican director behind "Amores Perros" and "Babel".

His tragic tale of survival in the underbelly of the Spanish city Barcelona, starring Oscar-winner Javier Bardem, had trade magazine The Hollywood Reporter in raptures.

"Until 'Biutiful; showed up, the competition appeared to be a rush to the bottom," wrote Kirk Honeycutt. "It's hard to imagine anyone winning best actor honors other than its star, Javier Bardem."

That opinion was not shared by competitor Variety, who slammed the Mexican director's "bleak streak", saying one "can't shake off the sense of a prodigiously gifted film-maker stuck in a grim rut."

The film festival has traditionally mixed hot directors with arthouse fare while bringing small-budget movies from far-off places into the international movie spotlight.

Highly praised by critics was Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, unloved by authorities at home, who offered his first film shot abroad, "Certified Copy" starring French actress Juliette Binoche.

Binoche, along with Britain's Lesley Manville, who gives a compelling performance as a boozy insecure single in Leigh's film, stand out as leading candidates for Best Actress.

So does Korea's Jeon Do-youn, a previous Cannes winner, for her role in "Housemaid" by Im Sang-soo where class war is played out on a bedside pillow.

US striptease show-stoppers, who had Cannes raving in "On Tour" by French actor-turned-director Mathieu Amalric, could also pull an acting prize.

And acclaimed Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai's father-son drama, "Chongqing Blues" won buckets of praise, in part due to lead actor Wang Xueqi's strong performance.

Dividing critics on the other hand is Japanese master Takeshi Kitano with a a riot of gruesome violence in "Outrage", a Yakuza gangster film where he uses anything from fists to chopsticks and a dentist's drill to cow his enemies.

The Hollywood Reporter dubbed it "arguably his best film in a decade" but the Screen panel gave it a thumbs down, leaving it in second to last place.

Highly-awaited are previous Palme winner Ken Loach with "Route Irish" on the most dangerous stretch of road in Iraq and US director Doug Liman with "Fair Game", based on a real-life Bush-era scandal also linked to the Iraqi war.

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