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Ten Great British leading ladies

These actresses know how to carry a movie – and steal an audience's hearts.


To celebrate Sky Movies Great Brits season, we’ve picked ten female British actors whose lead performances will never be forgotten. These are ten women who have headed up extraordinary movies in extraordinary ways.

RECOMMENDED: 50 great British actors

Ten Great British leading ladies

Ten great British leading ladies, Kate Beckinsale in Underworld.

Kate Beckinsale

Best for: Leather-clad supernatural slinkiness

No one saw it coming when that nice Kate Beckinsale switched from polite roles in period dramas to the leather-clad vampire heroine of action-horror smash ‘Underworld’. Three sequels later, and she’s still kicking undead ass like it’s going out of fashion.

Key films: ‘The Last Days of Disco’, ‘Underworld’, ‘Van Helsing’
Ten great British leading ladies, Dame Judi Dench, Philomena
Alex Bailey

Judi Dench

Best for: Taking charge – in a nice way

She’s played the Queen of England and the head of MI6 – but Judi Dench’s most memorable, self-revealing role might be as the downtrodden but still optimistic Catholic mother searching for her stolen child in devastating comedy-drama ‘Philomena’.

Key films: ‘Mrs Brown’, ‘Philomena’, ‘Skyfall’
Ten great British leading ladies - Atonement - Keira Knightley as Cecilia Tallis

Keira Knightley

Best for: Aristocratic enthusiasm – with an edge

No one expected Keira Knightley to last this long – or get this good. Early roles in the likes of ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ required her to do little more than run about and grin, but she’s steadily matured into an actor of real force and intensity.

Key films: ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’, ‘Atonement’, ‘Anna Karenina’
Ten great British leading ladies, Miranda Richardson

Miranda Richardson

Best for: Chillingly convincing psychodrama

Her bold, sensual performance as doomed murderess Ruth Ellis in ‘Dance With a Stranger’ announced Miranda Richardson’s arrival as a star talent, but if you want to catch her most powerful, unsettling performance, track down David Cronenberg’s underrated London-set mental illness drama ‘Spider’.

Key films: ‘Dance With a Stranger’, ‘Damage’, ‘Spider’
Ten great British leading ladies, Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive. Sky Movies HD. Soda Pictures
Soda Pictures

Tilda Swinton

Best for: Extreme adaptability

We firmly believe that Tilda Swinton can do anything she sets her mind to. She’s played hot- blooded vampires (‘Only Lovers Left Alive’) and frosty ice-queens (‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’). She’s played romantic leads (‘I Am Love’) and psychotic villains (‘Snowpiercer’). She’s played young women, old women, and even men (‘Orlando’). Her talent is as boundless as her ambition.

Key films: ‘Orlando’, ‘I Am Love’, ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’
Ten great British leading ladies, Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylortra,  ...Fox

Elizabeth Taylor

Best for: Blowing the roof off

Starting out as a prim English princess in movies like ‘National Velvet’, Elizabeth Taylor found her natural register when she took on tempestuous, seductive roles in the likes of ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and the resplendent megabudget epic ‘Cleopatra’.

Key films: ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, ‘Cleopatra’
Ten great British leading ladies, Saving Mr Banks, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson)
Francois Duhamel

Emma Thompson

Best for: Brittle intelligence

Exuding a very British blend of quiet confidence and emotional vulnerability, Emma Thompson is equally at home in thoughtful British dramas like ‘The Remains of the Day’ or ‘Howards End’, or starring alongside Hollywood megastars including Arnold Schwarzenegger (‘Junior’) and Tom Hanks (‘Saving Mr Banks’).

Key films: ‘The Tall Guy’, ‘The Remains of the Day’, ‘Saving Mr Banks’
Ten great British leading ladies, Julie Walters, Rita White in Educating Rita

Julie Waters

Best for: Being the mum you never had

She may have burst onto the scene as the flirtatious young student in ‘Educating Rita’, but in recent years Julie Walters has successfully turned to maternal roles in the likes of ‘Billy Elliot’, ‘Paddington’ and the caring-but-tough Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter series.

Key films: ‘Educating Rita’, ‘Billy Elliot’, ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’
Ten great British leading ladies, Rachel Weisz, Constant Gardener

Rachel Weisz

Best for: Thoughtful integrity

After the rip-roaring success of ‘The Mummy’, it seemed we might lose Rachel Weisz to Hollywood. But this ever-challenging actor has her sights set so much higher: her heartbreaking, painstakingly controlled performance in Terence Davies’s post-war melodrama ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ was a quiet marvel.

Key films: ‘The Mummy’, ‘The Constant Gardener’, ‘The Deep Blue Sea’
Ten great British leading ladies. Titanic. Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) in TITANIC.. .. 1997 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Paramount Pictures Corporation

Kate Winslet

Best for: Grace under pressure

Cool, calm and collected – even when she’s stuck on a sinking ship in the middle of the Atlantic – Kate Winslet has won an Oscar, an Emmy and a Golden Globe, seemingly without breaking a sweat.

Key films: ‘Jude’, ‘Titanic’, ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

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