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12 Essential Kate Winslet Performances

Photo: Paramount Pictures

There is something about Kate Winslet that draws you in. The actress’s magnetism, deployed so often in romantic dramas to full effect (who wouldn’t fall for her?), is the kind that feels both ineffable and wholly grounded. There’s a lived-in quality to the women Winslet brings to the screen; to talk about them as “fully fleshed out” feels all too literal. Considering she received her first Oscar nomination when she was just 20 years old (with an additional six nominations and one win in its wake), it’s hard to think back to a time when she wasn’t lauded for her work. But that also means it’s just as easy to forget why we do so.

From Shakespearean tragedies and Austen dramas to Kaufman romances and Sorkin triptychs, Winslet has assembled a truly eclectic filmography full of daring performances of complicated women who refuse to let themselves be defined by their circumstances. Such a modern vision of female interiority is perhaps why she’s so drawn to — and so excels in — period pieces; they’ve offered her a chance to wrestle her characters away from their historical frames. Her own boldness constantly helps reshape the way we understand, say, a rebellious English girl sailing aboard the Titanic, or a young gifted writer with a zest for life.

As her return to television in HBO’s addictive new murder-mystery drama Mare of Easttown ushers in renewed attention on the gifts of one of her generation’s greatest actors, we’re counting down the British actress’s essential performances.

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

After a string of appearances in several BBC TV shows (shout-out to Dark Season and/or Get Back fans), Winslet made her feature-film debut in Peter Jackson’s deliciously twisted Heavenly Creatures. Based on the notorious Parker-Hulme case, the 1950s period piece centers on two young teenagers (played by Winslet and Melanie Lynskey) whose increasingly toxic codependent relationship sets the stage for a gruesome murder plot framed by the queerest of fairy tales. The film, which wowed at Venice and earned Jackson and Frances Walsh an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, rightly made Winslet a talent to watch. As the haughty, unblinking Juliet, the young actress offered an arched portrait of teenage cruelty thawed and bolstered by the daydreamed world she and Lynskey’s Pauline created for themselves. Equally broad and restrained, the performance marked the arrival of a fearless young performer who would soon become the talk of the entire world.

Sense & Sensibility (1995)

If Heavenly Creatures’ Juliet anticipated Winslet’s career-long interest in thorny visions of femininity, her performance as lovestruck and lovesick Marianne Dashwood in Ang Lee’s tender Jane Austen adaptation very much set the template for what would become one of her signature onscreen gifts. Namely: No one falls in love onscreen quite like Kate. Rosy-cheeked and flush with unbridled optimism about the fancies of romance, her Marianne is an open book. As Emma Thompson’s Elinor puts it, “Marianne does not approve of hiding her emotions. In fact, her romantic prejudices have the unfortunate tendency to set propriety at naught,” a line that serves almost like an epigraph to Winslet’s entire filmography. Nailing subtle rain-soaked meet-cutes and fire-lit Shakespearean poetry readings in between blushes, Winslet’s Oscar-nominated turn made Austen’s signature ingenue the beating heart of this 19th-century tale about the impracticalities of being in love.

Titanic (1997)

The bulk of praise for this box-office behemoth often falls on its visionary director. James Cameron’s ambition is no doubt what made Titanic such a phenomenon — a cinematic event, really. But amid those impressive action sequences and those top-of-the-line special effects was, let’s not forget, a love story. A tad hazily sketched one, all things considered, but boy, did a luminous Winslet and a swoon-worthy Leonardo DiCaprio sell it with too many iconic moments to list (the dancing! “I’m the king of the world!” The sweaty handprint! “I want you to draw me like one of your French girls”). From the moment Rose DeWitt Bukater steps onto the ship (a true movie-star entrance), Winslet is transfixing — and she never lets up. Playing the young wife-to-be, Winslet straddles the line between ingenue and brat with an almost impossible blend of English rose and untamed shrew. She handily co-anchored what would become the biggest film in the world with a pair of steely, dreamy eyes that made us all fall in love with her and had us forever wishing she’d never let go.

Hideous Kinky (1998)

Tracing Winslet’s career in the years immediately following Titanic is like watching an actress will herself as far away from Hollywood spectacle as she possibly could. In the wake of that mammoth hit, she worked with filmmakers like Richard Eyre, Alan Parker, and Jane Campion, playing an array of off-kilter characters that positioned her as an actress driven by passion for challenging — if oftentimes unsuccessful — material. But if she sought to distance herself from the lavish sets and heightened expectations that came from costly high-profile studio projects, she still carried the spirit of Rose DeWitt Bukater with her for a few years. Take Hideous Kinky: Julia was yet another young woman eager to flee her dreary life in London in the hopes of remaking herself anew. With her two young daughters in tow, this free-spirited mom arrives in Morocco looking for a new lease on life (and, perhaps, some welcome spiritual serenity). What may remain a footnote in an otherwise storied career full of showier performances nevertheless feels essential for the way it captures the earthy groundedness that came to characterize her work in films as disparate as Quills, Hamlet, and Romance & Cigarettes.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

There’s a possibility Winslet will one day give us a career-defining performance that’ll come to eclipse Clementine Kruczynski as her crowning achievement. But if she never accomplishes such a feat, she should take solace in knowing it’s because she set the bar much too high for herself. Balancing the ever-changing tonal shifts that structure this Michel Gondry/Charlie Kaufman Rubik’s cube of a love story, Winslet is sublime. Asked to play Joel’s memory of Clementine for much of the film, Winslet is a shape-shifting revelation, carefully calibrating her performance to suit every scene’s needs. She’s loose and frayed one moment, charming and irritating the next, leaning into Clementine’s contradictions with abandon, making you believe she could be both the kind of girl you’d fall for if you met her on a train and the kind you’d resent and pick a fight with at your regular dinner spot. What could easily have made for a wildly inconsistent characterization given the script’s intentionally fragmented structure allows the actress, instead, to show how nimble she could be, turning Clementine into a perfect example and a damning deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl.

Extras (2005)

Who knew Winslet could be this funny? Sure, there’s a wry humor that runs through much of her work, but she’s never been the kind of actress one would immediately peg as a comedic force. That’s perhaps what suited her so well for a guest-star turn in Ricky Gervais’s movie-set comedy. During its 13-episode run, Extras was the place where British thespians got to poke fun at themselves by playing heightened (and hilarious) versions of their own public personas. In true form, watching Winslet playing herself playing a nun in a WWII drama (“I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust — guaranteed Oscar!” she presciently quips) is a joy to watch. Tackling lines like, “I’m aching for your big, purple-headed womb ferret,” and matching the absurdity of Gervais’s humor with gusto, she added some color (blue, in this case) to her filmography.

The Holiday (2006)

For an actress so clearly enamored with romance itself — her career is basically an extended exploration of the perils and pleasures of desire — it’s surprising it took Winslet so long before she dabbled in the rom-com realm. What’s not surprising, though, is that the genre fit her like a glove. This Nancy Meyers home-swap comedy could feel, amid award-winning dramas and critically acclaimed period pieces, like minor Winslet. Yet it very much captures an aspect of the actress’s work that rarely gets singled out: her near-chameleonic ability to match a scene partner’s energy and conjure up that most ineffable of acting gifts — onscreen chemistry. Seeing her stripped of accents and corsets made it all the more obvious how generous a performer she can be, tuning in just as effortlessly to Jack Black’s here-subdued comedic rhythms as to Eli Wallach’s buoyant sense of humor. Moreover, the twinned “If you were a melody” and “You’re a leading lady” scenes are beautifully unassuming examples of Winslet’s ability to do so much with little else but a glance.

The Reader (2008)

It’s all too easy to brush off Stephen Daldry’s The Reader and Winslet’s role as Hanna Schmitz as mere catnip for Academy voters (here was Winslet donning an accent in a Holocaust drama — “guaranteed Oscar!”). Yet that would do a disservice to what is both a technically precise and a blush-worthy performance worth every award thrown Winslet’s way. As Hanna, Winslet played a woman whose incurious nature is at the center of both the sun-dappled affair she has with a younger man and the bleak post-World War II trial proceedings that make up Daldry’s drama. Almost oppressively literal, Hanna all but forced Winslet to dim her own charm. Embracing a stilted delivery, the actress found a way to weaponize Hanna’s disarming simplemindedness to great effect (the way she utters “Well, what would you have done?” is chilling precisely for its banality), making it near impossible for Academy voters to deny her what felt like a reward more than a decade in the making.

Revolutionary Road (2008)

Winslet has played her fair share of women grappling with ennui. In films like Todd Field’s prickly, steamy drama Little Children and Jason Reitman’s misfire of a romance Labor Day, she’s proven herself fascinated with the inner lives of women equally eager and unable to dream up more exciting visions for their lives until a certain man comes along. And while it was that other 2008 performance which nabbed Winslet her (first, we hope) Oscar, I’m of the mind that this reteaming with her Titanic co-star (directed by her then-husband Sam Mendes, no less) remains one of her most accomplished. As April Wheeler, a picture-perfect 1950s housewife who bristles at feeling herself so described by everyone around her, Winslet is electrifying. Tracing both how she fell for DiCaprio’s Frank (their flirting still sublime a decade since Jack wooed Rose) and how she’s come to resent him (that screeching, histrionic kitchen scene is masterful), Winslet sketches April from within, telegraphing the loss she feels at getting boxed into her dreary suburban surroundings with every exasperated sigh she can muster.

Mildred Pierce (2011)

Knowing Todd Haynes was adapting James M. Cain’s 1941 novel (and not, pointedly, Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film adaptation) into an HBO miniseries meant there was little chance Winslet’s performance could land anywhere near the same realm as Joan Crawford’s singular, Oscar-winning take on the titular protagonist. Hewing much closer to the Mildred as described in Cain’s book, Winslet imbued this 1930s can-do entrepreneur with a near-pathetic need for love and validation. There’s a meekness at play which never lets up, even in moments when Mildred surprises herself and tries to wrestle control over her own life (throwing her cheating husband out of her house, yelling at her ungrateful viper of a daughter, falling madly in lust with a mustachioed playboy). Moreover, in Haynes’s hands, the sexual chemistry between Mildred and Monty (Guy Pearce) scorches up the screen, a reminder that Winslet, even when saddled with dowdy, dumpy brown dresses, can conjure up sexual allure for miles on end.

Ammonite (2020)

Winslet’s silver-screen work following her Oscar win was eclectic at best. In between Divergent entries, she tackled inscrutable accents (Steve Jobs, Triple 9) and juicy parts in so-so films (Wonder Wheel, A Little Chaos), and made altogether left-field choices (Movie 43, Collateral Beauty). It explains why her work in Francis Lee’s Ammonite was welcomed as a kind of return to form. Cloistered paleontologist Mary Anning, after all, gave the actress a chance to offer a variation and an improvement on a Winslet theme. Watching her Mary slowly warm up to Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte, first with chilly reserve and later with incandescent lust, is to watch an inverse of Winslet’s Marianne Dashwood. Mary is an oppressively interior character, yet she’s offered to us quite openly. Mirroring Mary’s own penchant for revealing that which is buried with diligent patience, this is an exercise in emoting while withholding, a performance that’s revealed in layers, one stolen glance and muted overture at a time.

Mare of Easttown (2021)

Winslet playing a hardened police detective tasked with solving the murder of a young girl in a small town on an HBO limited series already puts Mare of Easttown into a very different category than many of the performances listed above. Yet even within the trappings of a prestige whodunit drama, you can see why the Emmy-winning actress would be drawn to Mare. With her unflattering winter jackets, near-permanent weariness, and an unmissable Pennsylvania accent, this is a woman struggling to keep hold of the life she’s begrudgingly come to accept as her own. It’s no surprise to watch Winslet finding Mare less in her appearance than in her physicality. Turning vapes and beer bottles into scene partners of their own, making you feel a soulful heaviness in every hobbled step Mare takes, Winslet is carefully sketching a portrait of grief that’s hard to shake off.

12 Essential Kate Winslet Performances