Gig-economy Western “Nomadland” won four prizes including best picture on Sunday at the British Academy Film Awards, which were handed out during a pandemic-curbed ceremony that recognized a diverse array of screen talent.
“Nomadland” filmmaker Chloé Zhao became only the second woman, and the first woman of colour, to win the BAFTA for best director, and star Frances McDormand was named best actress. “Nomadland” 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”.
An event that was criticized 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 II, a long-time patron of the British film academy.
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.
Director Remi Weekes, who won the British debut prize for his first feature, “His House”, noted the surreal sensation of accepting the award while sitting in his living room in a tuxedo.
“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 need to do better,” she said.
The only previous female directing winner was Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker”.
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.
Under new rules that, among other things, made watching all long-listed films compulsory for academy voters, this year’s slate of acting nominees was strikingly more diverse, and four of the six filmmakers nominated for best director were women: Zhao, Sarah Gavron (“Rocks”), Shannon Murphy (“Babyteeth”) and Jasmila Zbanic (“Quo Vadis, Aida?”).
Asked what her directing prize meant for Asian women in film, Zhao said: “If this means more people like me get to live their dreams, then I feel very grateful.”
BAFTA chief executive Amanda Berry said the academy was “determined to make change.”
“We are not there yet, this is definitely still a work in progress, but I am really pleased with how far we have come,” she said.
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-actress prize for Korean-American family drama “Minari”. The Korean performer said she had always thought of the British as “very snobbish people.” But, she later clarified, “not in a bad way.”
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.”
Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round” was named best film not in the English language. Vinterberg paid tribute to his daughter Ida, who had been due to appear in the film and died in a car crash at the start of the shoot.
“We made this movie for her, so the honour granted by you, BAFTA voters, means more to us than you could ever imagine,” he said.
The British awards are usually held a week or two before the Academy Awards and have become an important awards-season staging post. This year, both the BAFTAs and the Oscars were postponed from their usual February berths because of the coronavirus pandemic.
BAFTAs in craft and backstage categories were handed out in a separate ceremony on Saturday, when “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” won two prizes, for costume design and hair and makeup.
Other double winners included “The Father” (best actor and adapted screenplay), “Sound of Metal” (editing and sound), “Promising Young Woman” (British film and original screenplay) and “Soul” (animated film and musical score).
Director Ang Lee was awarded the academy’s top honour, the BAFTA Fellowship.
Actor, writer and director Noel Clarke received the outstanding British contribution to cinema award, dedicating it to “my young Black boys and girls out there that never believed it could happen to them.”