The force of Gravity was strong at the British Academy Film Awards on Sunday - but it was unflinching drama 12 Years a Slave that took the top prize.
Steve McQueen's visceral, violent story of a free back man kidnapped into servitude in the 19th-century US South was named best picture. Its star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, took the male acting trophy.
Ejiofor thanked McQueen, a visual artist who turned to filmmaking with Hunger and Shame, for bringing the story to the screen.
Holding the trophy, the British actor told McQueen: "This is yours. I'm going to keep it - that's the kind of guy I am - but it's yours."
McQueen reminded the ceremony's black-tie audience that, in some parts of the world, slavery is not a thing of the past.
"There are 21 million people in slavery as we sit here," he said. "I just hope 150 years from now our ambivalence will not allow another filmmaker to make this film."
Lost-in-space thriller Gravity - made in Britain by a Mexican director and starring American actors - won six prizes, including best director, for Alfonso Cuaron.
The 3-D special effects extravaganza also won the awards for sound, music, cinematography and visual effects, and despite its mixed parentage was named best British film.
Cuaron paid tribute to star Sandra Bullock, who is alone onscreen for much of the film.
"Without her performance, everything would have been nonsense," he said.
Con-artist caper American Hustle charmed its way to three prizes, including original screenplay and supporting actress for Jennifer Lawrence. Its spectacular 70s stylings took the hair and makeup award.
The best-actress prize went to Cate Blanchett for her turn as a socialite on the slide in Blue Jasmine. She dedicated the award to her friend and fellow actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died this month, calling him "a monumental presence who is now sadly an absence."
The supporting actor prize went to Barkhad Abdi, who made an explosive screen debut as a Somali pirate in Captain Phillips.
The 28-year-old called his experience of going from obscurity in Minnesota to stardom - complete with an Oscar nomination - "surreal."
Praising the other Somali actors who played his fellow pirates, he said: "We came from nothing and we got this."
In the past few years, the British prizes, known as Baftas, have helped underdog films, including Slumdog Millionaire, The King's Speech and The Artist, gain Oscars momentum.
The awards have become an essential stop for many Hollywood stars before the Academy Awards, held this year on March 2 (March 3, NZ time).
The temperature in London was hardly Hollywood, but Britain's fickle weather relented ahead of Sunday's ceremony. The sun shone as nominees including "Wolf of Wall Street" star Leonardo DiCaprio and 12 Years a Slave performer Lupita Nyong'o- striking in a green Dior gown - walked the red carpet outside London's Royal Opera House.
Best-actress nominee Amy Adams wore a black dress by Victoria Beckham, and revealed the inspirations for her American Hustle character's faux-British accent: Marianne Faithfull and Julie Christie.
There was royalty of the Hollywood kind - Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, wearing matching tuxedos. And there was British royalty, too, in the form of Prince William, honorary president of the film academy.
The documentary prize went to The Act of Killing, a powerful look at hundreds of thousands of killings carried out in 1960s Indonesia in the name of fighting communism by death squads that went unpunished. Director Joshua Oppenheimer dedicated the award to his Indonesian co-director and crew, all of whom had to work anonymously because of the threat to their lives in tackling the taboo topic.
Will Poulter (Son of Rambow, We're the Millers), a 21-year-old actor, won the rising star award, decided by public vote.
Director Peter Greenaway received an award for outstanding contribution to British cinema for a body of unsettling, comic and erotic films that includes The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and The Draughtsman's Contract.
Greenaway said he hoped the trophy would encourage those, like him, "who believe that cinema has to be continually reinvented."
Helen Mirren received the British Academy Fellowship in honour of a career that has ranged from a hard-nosed detective in TV series Prime Suspect to Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen.
Mirren, 68, said she was "almost speechless" at receiving the honour, whose previous recipients include Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Elizabeth Taylor and Judi Dench.
"It's been an amazing journey up to now," she said.
She was given the trophy by Prince William - who said he should probably call her "granny." Mirren won an Oscar for playing his grandmother, Britain's monarch, in The Queen.
"I wanted to have a hanky in my bag and take it out and spit on it and clean his face," Mirren joked.
Winners of the 2014 British Academy Film Awards:
Film - 12 Years a Slave
British Film - Gravity
Director - Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Actor - Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Actress - Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Supporting Actor - Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Supporting Actress - Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Rising Star - Will Poulter
British Debut - Writer-director Kieran Evans, Kelly + Victor
Original Screenplay - Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle
Adapted Screenplay - Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, Philomena
Film Not in the English Language - The Great Beauty
Music - Gravity
Cinematography - Gravity
Editing - Rush
Production Design - The Great Gatsby
Costume Design - The Great Gatsby
Sound - Gravity
Visual Effects - Gravity
Makeup and Hair - American Hustle
Animated Feature - Frozen
Short Film - Room 8
Short Animation - Sleeping With the Fishes
Documentary - The Act of Killing
Outstanding British Contribution to British Cinema - Peter Greenaway
Academy Fellowship - Helen Mirren