Nomadland filmmaker Chloe Zhao became only the second woman to win the Bafta for best director, and star Frances McDormand was named best actress. The film also took the cinematography prize.
Emerald Fennell’s revenge comedy Promising Young Woman was named best British film, while the best actor trophy went to 83-year-old Anthony Hopkins for playing a man grappling with dementia in The Father.
There was no joy for Irish nominees. Cartoon Saloon’s film Wolfwalkers missed out on an award as the Animated Film Bafta went to Pixar’s Soul.
Calm With Horses stars Niamh Algar (nominated in the supporting actress category) and Barry Keoghan (nominated as best supporting actor) also missed out.
An event that was criticised in the recent past with the label #BAFTAsSoWhite rewarded a diverse group of talents, including black British star Daniel Kaluuya, newcomer Bukky Bakray – who shone as a London teenager in Rocks – and veteran Korean actress Yuh-Jung Youn.
The fact that Britain remains under coronavirus lockdown measures, with its movie theatres still closed, gave the evening a poignant tone, as did the death on Friday of Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth.
Prince William, who had been due to attend and make a speech in his role as president of Britain’s film academy, was absent following the death of his grandfather.
The ceremony opened with a tribute to Philip, who was the academy’s first president in 1959.
Presenters including Hugh Grant, Tom Hiddleston, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Priyanka Chopra Jonas announced the winners from the stage of London’s Royal Albert Hall, but recipients accepted their honours remotely, and there was no black-tie audience to cheer them on.
Acclaimed filmmaker Ang Lee has enjoyed enormous success over a pioneering career, jumping between genres with the same grace as the martial artists from what is perhaps his most famous movie.
The Taiwanese director, 66, is known for films including Brokeback Mountain, Life Of Pi and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
He has won just about every award on offer – including two best director Oscars – and on Sunday received a Bafta Fellowship, the organisation’s highest honour.
Nomadland stars McDormand as a middle-aged woman who travels the American West while living out of her van and picking up short-term work.
Zhao, who lived among real American travellers for the film, thanked “the nomadic community who so generously welcomed us into their lives.”
“How we treat our elders says a lot about who we are as a society, and we have to do a lot better,” she said.
The British film academy expanded its voting membership and shook up its rules last year in an attempt to address a glaring lack of diversity in the nominations.
In 2020, no women were nominated as best director for a seventh consecutive year, and all 20 nominees in the lead and supporting performer categories were white.
Kaluuya was named best supporting actor for playing Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah.
Youn appeared astonished to win the best-supporting actress prize for Korean-American family drama Minari.
Bakray (19) won the Rising Star award, whose previous winners include Kaluuya, Kristin Stewart, Tom Hardy and John Boyega.
“I don’t know how to feel,” she said. “When we filmed Rocks, I thought 100 people would watch this film, max.”