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Kathryn Bigelow wins battle of 'exes' as 'Hurt Locker' storms Baftas

Carey Mulligan takes Best Actress while Colin Firth awarded Best Actor

If the Bafta Awards had been pitched as a battle of the 'exes' between the Hollywood director, James Cameron's $300m (£200m) animation movie, Avatar, and his former partner, Kathryn Bigelow's low budget film, The Hurt Locker, it was an outright win for the ex-wife.

Both films had received eight Bafta nominations but it was Bigelow's David which triumphed over Cameron's Goliath by taking home a clutch of six awards – including the Best Director and Best Film prizes – for her gritty Iraq drama featuring an American bomb disposal unit. The British film An Education had also been nominated for eight awards but while, like Avatar, it mostly missed out it did clinch one of the main prizes – that of best actress for Carey Mulligan.

But for Bigelow it was a night to remember with her Indie film the star of the show. Awards included best original screenplay, as well as for editing, sound and cinematography. Clearly overcome by the flush of accolades, she said: "I would like to dedicate (the film) to never abandoning the need to find a resolution for peace."

The film's main rival, Avatar, is reputed to be the most expensive film ever made and has reaped $2bn in takings yet picked up just two awards - production design and special visual effects. Attention will now turn to the Oscars, where Avatar and The Hurt Locker are pitted against each other with nine nominations apiece.

Carey Mulligan picked up the Best Actress Bafta award for her role in An Education, a £4m drama based on the memoirs of the journalist, Lyn Barber. It is an honour that bodes well for Mulligan who has also been nominated for an Oscar for the same role; actresses who have won this accolade in the past four years – Reece Witherspoon, Helen Mirren, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet – have all gone on to win an Oscar.

Mulligan, who stands to win an American Academy Award in Los Angeles next month, appeared overwhelmed by her victory above her fellow nominees including Meryl Streep and Audrey Tautou. "I didn't expect this at all," she said, thanking the writer, Nick Hornby, for creating "such a brilliant character" in his screenplay.

Colin Firth appeared equally unprepared as he won Best Actor for his part in Tom Ford's directorial debut, A Single Man, based on the story by Christopher Isherwood. Firth, who is also up for an Oscar, suggested that he had almost turned the part down but was distracted from making the phone call to the director by a man who came to his home to repair his fridge.

"I'd like to thank the fridge guy," he said. He had been up against George Clooney, and the British actor, Andy Serkis, among others.

Fish Tank, a socially realist film featuring a working class teenager's relationship with her mother's boyfriend, starring Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbinder, won a Bafta for Outstanding British Film, above An Education. Andrea Arnold, commended the academy for giving her an award for a film that is "not necessarily an easy ride".

Duncan Jones made a tearful speech while collecting his gong for Best Debut for a British writer, director or producer. Jones – who is the son of David Bowie and was formerly known as Zowie Bowie – was honoured for his first feature film, Moon, a sci-fi thriller starring Sam Rockwell.

The film features an astronaut who is stranded on the Moon, with suspicions that he has been cloned, and it was partly financed by Trudi Styler, the wife of the singer, Sting.

Jones, who was up against Sam Taylor Wood for her biopic on John Lennon, Nowhere Boy, was visibly moved. He said it had "taken me an awfully long time to decide what I want to do with my life and finally I have found what I love doing."

Afterwards, he said: "My interest in science fiction comes from my dad being a dad," he said.

Monique Imes, known as Mo'Nique, picked up the Best Supporting Actress for her role in Precious, as the abusive mother of the eponymous sexually abused teenage. She had only a week earlier won a Golden Globe for the same role. The Austrian actor, Christoph Waltz, took the Best Supporting Actor for his role as an SS colonel in Quentin Tarantino's bloody Nazi epic, Inglourious Basterds.

A Prophet, Jacque Audiard's French prison thriller, won the prize for best film in a foreign language, above Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, which picked up last year's main prize at the Cannes film Festival. Prince William, who succeeds Lord Attenborough as Bafta's president this year, was at the ceremony to present Vanessa Redgrave with a British Academy Fellowship. In his speech in front of the actors filling the main hall of the Royal Opera House in London, he said it was a "great honour" to take over from Attenborough while Redgrave praised the Prince for his "intelligence, humility and kindness".

The Baftas have become an increasingly accurate predictor for the Oscars, staged in Los Angeles. Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire dominated the Baftas last year before going on to win eight Oscars.