LONDON — For the second straight year, a story taken from the pages of American history triumphed at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards, with "12 Years a Slave" winning prizes for best film and for leading actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.
In a mild upset, Alfonso Cuarón, director of the space odyssey "Gravity," beat out "12 Years a Slave's" Steve McQueen as best director. Cate Blanchett took lead actress honors for "Blue Jasmine" and promptly dedicated her award to the memory of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died this month of an apparent drug overdose.
She said Hoffman's "monumental talent" and "unflinching honesty" had raised the bar for everyone in their profession.
"All we can do in your absence is to try to raise it continually in our work," Blanchett said, tears in her eyes. "So, Phil, buddy, this is for you…. Hope you're proud."
Jennifer Lawrence, who was absent from the ceremony, won for supporting actress in "American Hustle," and Barkhad Abdi, the Somali-born actor plucked from obscurity as a cabbie in Minnesota to play opposite Tom Hanks in the pirate drama "Captain Phillips," was honored as supporting actor.
The best film award for "12 Years a Slave" added to the momentum behind the gripping slavery-era movie as the awards season rushes toward the climax of the Oscars in two weeks. The film has already garnered a number of best picture laurels, including the Golden Globe for best drama last month.
Despite playing an American, the BAFTA trophy for Ejiofor was celebrated as a hometown victory here, since he, like director McQueen, is British. Ejiofor is the second Brit in a row to take the lead actor award for playing a Yank, after Daniel Day-Lewis' star turn as Abraham Lincoln.
Likewise, "12 Years a Slave" followed in the footsteps of the Iran-hostage thriller "Argo," last year's winner for best film, which was also based on a true American story.
Accepting the award for best film, McQueen called on listeners to help end modern-day human trafficking.
"There are 21 million people in slavery as we sit here," he told the glittering audience inside London's Royal Opera House. "I just hope that 150 years from now, our ambivalence will not allow another filmmaker to make this film."
Overall, "12 Years a Slave" received 10 nominations, the same number as "American Hustle" but one fewer than the space odyssey "Gravity," which reaped the most prizes with six, including for outstanding British film, cinematography, special effects and music.
Indeed, "12 Years a Slave," which many bookies had expected to sweep the awards, seemed in danger of being shut out completely until the final few minutes of the two-hour, 40-minute ceremony.
In addition to Lawrence, "American Hustle" won for original screenplay and for hair and makeup. "Captain Phillips" — which the ceremony's host, comedian Stephen Fry, said should be titled "Saving Mr. Hanks" — had nine nods but picked up only one prize, Abdi's.
Abdi said he would put the trophy, in the shape of a classical theater mask, in his mother's house.
"I'm kind of in shock," he said. "It's been amazing, and you know, I'm loving every moment of it."
"Frozen" won for animated film, and Italy's "The Great Beauty" for foreign-language film. The only award voted on by the public, for rising star, went to 21-year-old British actor Will Poulter ("The Chronicles of Narnia"), edging out Lupita Nyong'o, a BAFTA and Oscar nominee for her breakout performance in "12 Years a Slave."
Once regarded by Hollywood as a minor footnote on the awards circuit, the BAFTAs have shot to greater prominence in the past decade since organizers decided to hand out the prizes before the Oscars instead of after. The switch upped the awards' prestige as a predictor of the Academy Awards and turned the ceremony into an A-list red-carpet event for Tinseltown's biggest celebrities.
Given a break from the relentless rain that has pounded Britain for weeks and drowned some parts of England, fans screamed as Amy Adams, Tom Hanks, Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio and other stars strolled into the Royal Opera House, which Fry joked was named after Oprah Winfrey, who attended Sunday for the first time. Winfrey was the evening's first presenter and a nominee for supporting actress.
"Her performance in ‘The Butler' was so commanding I nearly gave mine the afternoon off," Fry said.
Hollywood royalty inside the auditorium was matched by the real kind: Prince William, second in line to the British throne and titular president of the British academy, a post traditionally reserved for a member of the royal family. William helped present the academy's highest honor, a BAFTA fellowship, to Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar for portraying Queen Elizabeth II. The prince joked that he ought to call Mirren "Granny."
Mirren enthralled the audience by reciting a passage from Shakespeare's "The Tempest."
"‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep,'" she said after a standing ovation. "My little life is rounded with this honor."
The British academy also gave a special award for outstanding contribution to British cinema to director Peter Greenaway, the veteran auteur known for off-kilter and often boundary-pushing films such as "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," which starred Mirren.