It was a contest between two wildly different films - a 3D space disaster movie and an unflinching portrayal of 19th-century American slavery - and on paper it was the former, Gravity, which emerged as the biggest winner at the 2014 Bafta ceremony.
It won six awards, including best director and best British film. But 12 Years a Slave unquestionably picked up the biggest prize, best film, with Chiwetel Ejiofor named as best actor.
In a year when no one film swept the board, American Hustle also came away with three prizes.
Alfonso Cuaron won the best director award and said you would not know it from his accent but he considered himself a part of the British film industry. He has lived in London for 13 years and joked: "I make a very good case for curbing immigration."
The film, with its Mexican director, American stars and its outer space setting, raised a few eyebrows when it was included in the best British film category. Nevertheless, it fulfilled the rules and duly won.
Its British producer, David Heyman, said winning was "beyond belief" and paid tribute to the British company behind the amazing special effects, Framestore, which brought applause from the audience. Those effects got their own award, best special visual effects, beating a shortlist that also included The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim and Star Trek into Darkness.
The film also won for best sound, best cinematography and best original music, the latter by British composer Steven Price. He thanked his "mum and dad for having such a great record collection when I was a kid".
Accepting the best film award, 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen said: "There are 21 million people in slavery now as we sit here. I just hope that in 150 years from now our ambivalence will not allow another film-maker to make this film."
Ejiofor beat fellow shortlisted actors Bruce Dern, Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. He thanked the director Steve McQueen for "your work, artistry and passion in this project." Addressing him he said: "This is yours, you know that . . . you know that. I'm going to keep it, that's the kind of guy I am, but it's yours." Ejiofor was visibly moved and a little nervous. Few people will be surprised if the London-born actor is not having to do it all again at next month's Oscars ceremony.
Cate Blanchett was named best actress for the Woody Allen film and she dedicated it to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. "You raised the bar and all we can do in your absence is to continue raising it."
Some of the evening's biggest cheers came as newcomer Barkhad Abdi was named best supporting actor for his portrayal of a Somali pirate in Captain Phillips.
He triumphed in an extremely strong category which included Michael Fassbender, Bradley Cooper, Matt Damon and Daniel Bruhl. Abdi thanked his co-star Tom Hanks and the director Paul Greengrass "for believing in me before I believed in myself." Abdi was a limousine driver in Minneapolis, which has a large Somali community, when he turned up on a whim at an open audition and was cast.
Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby picked up two awards with Catherine Martin and Beverley Dunn winning best production design and Martin by herself winning best costume design. Martin thanked her team of 300 who worked on the film but, mercifully, not individually.
Rush, the dramatisation of Niki Lauda and James Hunt's Formula 1 rivalry, won the best editing award although the editors Dan Hanley and Mike Hill could not be there because director Ron Howard said they were busy editing his next movie. "I think they'd thank the hell out of me," he joked.
American Hustle, David O Russell's 1970s grifting caper won three awards. Jennifer Lawrence was named best supporting actress, and fittingly for a film with so many alarming haircuts and sideburns, it also triumphed in the best make-up and hair section. Its director, Russell, and Eric Warren Singer were the recipients of the best original screenplay award.
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope were the surprise winners in the best adapted screenplay section, beating John Ridley who wrote 12 Years a Slave. Coogan said he was inspired to adapt the book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, after he read an article in the Guardian 4 years ago. There were many thanks although Coogan said there were still another 60,000 women who had not traced their children, taken from them by nuns and put up for adoption, and "their story isn't yet over".
The sometimes controversial and always distinctive director Peter Greenaway, whose films include The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and Her Lover and The Pillow Book, received an outstanding British contribution to cinema award.
Greenaway, never shy in coming forward - in 2002 he accused film-makers of killing cinema with cynicism and laziness - follows in the footsteps of directors such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Derek Jarman and Alan Parker.
Greenaway said he was "very, very surprised" to receive the award and regarded it as "an encouragement for the continual reinvention of cinema."
Dame Helen Mirren was given Bafta's highest accolade, a fellowship. Somewhat appropriately, since she has portrayed the real Queen on both film and stage, it was given to her by a member of the royal family in the shape of Prince William.
The only award voted on by the public, the EE Rising Star award, went to Will Poulter who first came to attention as Lee Carter in the 2007 film Son of Rambow and was last year a real stand out in the comedy We're the Millers.
The awards, a dry run for next month's Oscars, attracted many big Hollywood names including Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and for the first time in years guests arrived at the Royal Opera House under a fading blue sky.
The ceremony at the Royal Opera House was once again amiably and wittily hosted by Stephen Fry who declared himself "humbled, honoured and in the best sense of the word, paid to be here."
Big names - and big talent - at the Baftas
Cate Blanchett (left) arrives at the Royal Opera House for
the 2014 Baftas. Above: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on
the red carpet. Below: Lupita Nyong'o, who appears in
12 Years a Slave, won plaudits from fashion experts
Main photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA