The US road movie Nomadland triumphed at the BAFTA film awards on Sunday, with Chinese director Chloe Zhao's intimate portrayal of marginalised Americans winning in four categories including best film, best actress and best director.
The socially distanced and largely remote awards ceremony in London saw a strong showing by women directors in the run-up to this month's Oscars. The British academy has sought to improve diversity and Zhao was one of four women nominated for "best director".
"We brought in changes to the awards to level the playing field", said Krishnendu Majumdar, chair of the academy, following criticism over last year's awards ceremony which had no women directors and an all-white shortlist. Zhao welcomed stronger representation for women film-makers in comments to journalists afterwards, saying: "It's about time, it's great. I love doing what I do and if this means more people like me get to live their dreams, I'm very grateful".
Also read: 'Nomadland' review: The woman in the van
British director Emerald Fennell also carried off two awards for her debut feature, Promising Young Woman starring Carey Mulligan. The Oscar-tipped thriller is about a woman who avenges a friend's rape by pretending to be drunk in bars and then turning the tables on men who prey on her. The film, which has elements of comedy and horror, won for outstanding British film and original screenplay.
Sitting in front of a grand piano in a gauzy white dress, Fennell described the film as a "labour of love". "It was the greatest thing in my life making this film," she said. The film is nominated for Oscars for best director and best original screenplay, while Mulligan is nominated for best actress.
Zhao accepted Nomadland's multiple awards dressed casually in a plaid shirt from Los Angeles, saying that she planned to start the day with celebrations. "Tomorrow morning, I will be very hungover," she said.
The film's star Frances McDormand won for best leading actress and sent a written message saying: "Thank you, dear British people." Nomadland is one of the frontrunners for this month's Oscar awards, with six nominations including for best picture, best director and best actress.
Last month it won coveted Golden Globe awards for best drama film and best director. Welsh actor Sir Anthony Hopkins won the best actor BAFTA for The Father" about a man suffering from dementia, directed by France's Florian Zeller.
Also read: 'Mank' review: Drunk history and 'Citizen Kane'
The 83-year-old didn't appear during the ceremony but spoke to journalists afterwards, explaining that he had not expected to win and had been holidaying in Wales and painting in his hotel room. "This is wonderful, I mean, this is the first time in my life when I never expected to get this," he said, calling his fourth BAFTA a "fun bonus".
An emerging star, 19-year-old Bukky Bakray, won the EE Rising Star award, chosen by public vote, for Rocks, a coming-of-age drama set in London. She made her debut after being discovered through open auditions. Dressed in a pink satin gown, she made her acceptance speech to screams of joy from her family and a hug from her mother.
The socially distanced ceremony was held at London's Royal Albert Hall with awards presented on stage to an empty auditorium.
The winning actors and film-makers mostly decked out in dinner jackets and evening dresses accepted awards on video calls from their living rooms and hotels, some with family members reacting emotionally in the background.
One of the award presenters, comedian Youssef Kerkour described the stripped-back ceremony as "diet Bafta".
Prince William had been due to participate in the ceremony, but he pulled out following the death of his grandfather Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II.
The star power came from the actors who presented awards on stage including Hugh Grant, Richard E. Grant, Tom Hiddleston and Bridgerton star Phoebe Dynevor. Hollywood star Renee Zellweger made a virtual appearance from Los Angeles in a dramatic silver gown to present the leading actor award.
Grant awarded the prestigious BAFTA Academy Fellowship to double Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, perhaps best known for Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, describing his career as "almost preposterously successful". "I'm humbled to be counted among such brilliant film-makers", said the Taiwanese film director.
The ceremony was held over two days for the first time, with technical awards on Saturday. On Saturday, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a film about a blues musician in 1920s Chicago, took home two technical BAFTAS for costume design and make-up and hair.
Rocks and Mank, a depiction of a debauched screenwriter during Hollywood's golden age, also bagged a prize each for casting and production design respectively.
Other winners in the technical awards included Christopher Nolan's science fiction action-thriller Tenet for special visual effects and Sound of Metal, starring British actor Riz Ahmed, for sound.