The harrowing drama 12 Years a Slave was crowned best film at the U.K.'s top film honours on Sunday, emerging as the night's major winner, while the space thriller Gravity was named outstanding British film.

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Director Steve McQueen celebrates after winning Best Film for 12 Years a Slave at the British Academy of Film and Arts (BAFTA) awards ceremony at the Royal Opera House in London. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

Hollywood stars including Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, both in tuxedos, descended on London for the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs), which come two weeks before the Academy Awards and are widely seen as indicators of Oscar success.

Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, was leading the field as the evening started with 11 BAFTA nominations, just ahead of 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle, each running in 10 categories.

But British director Steve McQueen was tipped for major wins with his unflinching 12 Years a Slave, which has already grabbed a slew of awards and is a hot favourite for the Oscars.

"The biggest thing about this event is being in London town. I was born here ... I am so proud," McQueen, 44, said outside the Royal Opera House on a cold but dry night.

Outstanding contribution award for Helen Mirren

He was joined on the red carpet by a Who's Who of stars including Leonardo DiCaprio, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and British names Judi Dench, Emma Thompson and Steve Coogan.

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This film publicity image released by Fox Searchlight shows Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from 12 Years A Slave. Ejiofor, a Brit, won Best Actor for his performance in the film, which also went on to be crowned Best Film. (Associated Press, Fox Searchlight Films, Jaap Buitendijk)

Fashion watchers were quick to name 30-year-old Kenyan Lupita Nyong'o best dressed actress for a bright green, shoulderless Dior Couture gown. She was nominated for best supporting actress for her role in 12 Years a Slave.

Britain's Prince William arrived last, chatting to the crowd lined up along the red carpet before heading inside, where he was to present an Academy Fellowship for outstanding contribution to film to the British actress Helen Mirren.

Mirren, 68, won an Oscar for playing his grandmother Queen Elizabeth in the 2006 film The Queen.

The first award of the night, announced by Winfrey, was for the outstanding British film, with Gravity beating Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Philomena, Rush, Saving Mr Banks and The Selfish Giant.

Gravity fits that category as it was filmed in the U.K. with groundbreaking visual effects made in Britain.

Bookmakers favoured 12 Years a Slave

Bookmakers had rightly expected 12 Years a Slave, based on a true story about a man kidnapped and sold into slavery, to be the big winner of the night, the most closely watched award ceremony outside the United States.

The film was tipped to take four of the major BAFTA categories including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor for Briton Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Best Supporting Actress.

'This is the second film in my career that I really got behind and did everything I could to get made. This is a very proud moment for me'- Leonardo DiCaprio, star of The Wolf of Wall Street

"The odds suggest that 12 Years A Slave will sweep the boards," bookmaker William Hill's spokesman Rupert Adams said.

The other nominated films were the 1970s con-men caper American Hustle, the Somali pirate thriller Captain Phillips and the British drama Philomena, starring Judi Dench as an Irish woman trying to find the son she gave up for adoption.

Vying for the best actor prize alongside Ejiofor were Christian Bale in American Hustle, Bruce Dern in Nebraska, DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese's tale of American greed The Wolf of Wall Street, and Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips.

The award went to Ejiofor.

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This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Sandra Bullock in a scene from Gravity, which took the outstanding British film award at the BAFTAs. (Associated Pres, Warner Bros. Pictures)

DiCaprio said it had taken seven years and a lot of luck to get The Wolf of Wall Street to the big screens.

"This is the second film in my career that I really got behind and did everything I could to get made. This is a very proud moment for me," he said.

The bookies' favourite to win best leading actress was Cate Blanchett, who played a riches-to-rags socialite in Woody Allen's tragicomedy Blue Jasmine.

She beat out four other women, including Dench, who garnered a record 15th BAFTA nomination at age 79, was one of five women competing for Best Actress. Also in the running were Adams from American Hustle, Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks and Bullock in Gravity.

A list of winners in the main categories at the 2014 BAFTAs, Britain's top film awards:

  • Best Film: 12 Years a Slave
  • Outstanding British Film: Gravity
  • Best Director Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity
  • Leading Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
  • Leading Actress: Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
  • Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips
  • Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
  • Documentary: The Act of Killing
  • Animated Film: Frozen      
  • Original Screenplay: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell for
  • American Hustle
  • Adapted Screenplay: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for Philomena
  • Film Not in the English Language: The Great Beauty
  • Original Music: Gravity
  • Cinematography: Gravity