Atonement's 14 Bafta nominations may have led to feverish predictions of a golden moment for British film but yesterday's awards ceremony turned out to be a triumph for French cinema as a biopic about the tumultuous life of the singer Edith Piaf became the biggest winner. La Vie En Rose scooped four Bafta awards at a ceremony at Covent Garden's Royal Opera House, despite the winning odds for Joe Wright's film adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement starring Keira Knightley, who walked away empty-handed.
But if Wright needed consolation, the drama claimed the cherished best film award, which has in the past, led to triumph in the Oscar's ceremony in two weeks' time. The film also won in the production design category.
The evening started with the traditional red-carpet glamour as stars sashayed their way in. After the cancellation of the Golden Globes ceremony in America, in sympathy with the screenwriters' strike – and with the future of the Oscars ceremony still uncertain – the stars appeared to spend longer than usual before the cameras.
Knightley, 22, dressed in a white dress and sleek black Tuxedo jacket, spent time signing autographs. Speaking about her best actress nomination at the beginning of the night, she expressed her "amazement", saying: "I don't think I ever thought I'd get nominated for a Bafta. It was completely extraordinary, so very exciting."
Julie Christie, 66, emerged before the crowds wearing a jacket and animal print trousers while Tilda Swinton, who won in the best supporting category for her turn in Michael Clayton, represented full-scale glamour in a gold and black John Galliano evening dress. To the film industry's surprise, Marion Cotillard, the 32-year-old French actress who played Piaf, picked up the best leading actress award – even though Julie Christie had been considered the prize's front-runner for her comeback performance as an Alzheimer's sufferer in Away From Her, with which she returned to the cinema screens in a lead role after a decade's absence. The last time a French actress was nominated for a Bafta was Audrey Tautou in 2002, while Simone Signoret won the best foreign actress award for Room at the Top in 1959.
It is thought that this is the first time a French actress has claimed the winning prize in the best actress category. She expressed her astonishment at having scooped the award from a short list which included Cate Blanchett, Knightley and Christie.
"It has been the most incredible adventure, I loved every second of shooting this. I hope Edith Piaf would be happy with it," she said.
Daniel Day-Lewis, 50, scooped the best actor award for his intense portrayal of the rise and moral decline of an American oil tycoon in There Will Be Blood.
His performance led some critics to hail him as the "most important actor alive". He had been up against James McAvoy and George Clooney among others. His past accolades include an Oscar in 1989 for his lead role in My Left Foot. Collecting his award directly after Cotillard, Day-Lewis said: "Never mind her performance, for sheer balls alone, I feel Marion Cotillard ought to have this one as well."
Shane Meadows' gritty race drama, This is England, about a young skinhead who loses his father in the Falklands war, was hailed as best British film, while Paul Greengrass' spy thriller, The Bourne Ultimatum, starring Matt Damon, scooped two Baftas for editing and sound.
The American directors, Joel and Ethan Coen's acclaimed thriller, No Country For Old Men, claimed the best director award and gongs for cinematography and best supporting actor, which went to the Spanish actor, Javier Bardem.
While Cotillard might have been viewed as a rank outsider at the Baftas, the Parisian has quietly forged an unblemished film career.
Not only did she scoop a Golden Globe for her performance as Piaf this year, she is also nominated for the Oscars, for which this Bafta may give her added gravitas. Having begun acting as a child when she would make appearances on her father's stage, she came to prominence in her homeland in the mid-Nineties when she was cast in Luc Besson's Taxi, a role she reprised in two sequels.
Meanwhile, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film adaptation of the French memoir, Le scaphandre et le papillon, which had already picked up two Golden Globes, claimed the title for best adapted screenplay.
The film, directed by the American artist and film maverick, Julian Schnabel, tells the moving, true story of the journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffers a massive stroke that leaves him almost totally paralysed and painstakingly writes his life story by blinking the alphabet with his left eyelid.
The Welsh-born actor, Sir Anthony Hopkins, was awarded the Academy Fellowship, the highest accolade bestowed by Bafta in recognition of an exceptional contribution to film.
Collecting the award to thundering applause, he said he felt like a "lucky guy", adding "it's a strange business but I'm glad to be part of it".
* BEST FILM: Atonement
* BEST BRITISH FILM: This is England
* DIRECTOR: Joel Coen/Ethan Coen – No Country For Old Men
* LEADING ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood
* LEADING ACTRESS: Marion Cotillard – La Vie en Rose
* SUPPORTING ACTOR: Javier Bardem - No Country for Old Men
* SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Tilda Swinton - Michael Clayton
* FILM NOT IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE - The Lives of Others
* ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Juno – Diablo Cody
* ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Ronald Harwood – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
* ANIMATED FILM: Ratatouille
* MUSIC: Christopher Gunning – La Vie en Rose
* CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Deakins – No Country For Old Men
* EDITING: Christopher Rouse – The Bourne Ultimatum
* PRODUCTION DESIGN: Sarah Greenwood/Katie Spencer – Atonement
* COSTUME DESIGN: Marit Allen – La Vie en Rose
* SOUND: Kirk Francis/Scott Millan/David Parker/Karen Baker Landers/Per Hallberg – The Bourne Ultimatum
* SPECIAL VISUAL EFFECTS: Michael Fink/Bill Westenhofer/Ben Morris/Trevor Wood – The Golden Compass
* MAKE UP & HAIR: Jan Archibald/Didier Lavergne – la Vie en Rose
* SHORT ANIMATION : The Pearce Sisters
* SHORT FILM: Dog Altogether
* THE ORANGE RISING STAR AWARD: Shia Laboeuf (voted for by the public)
* ACADEMY FELLOWSHIP: Sir Anthony Hopkins
* THE CARL FOREMAN AWARD for special achievement by a British director, writer or producer for their first feature film: Matt Greenhalgh (Writer) – Control