“Heavenly Creatures” (1995)
Winslet’s breakout role is still one of her best, a chilling and incisive performance that’s all the more impressive when you consider that it marked her first foray in front of the camera (it was also the debut of her co-star Melanie Lynskey, and it’s similarly one of the New Zealand actress’ best performances to date). Based on the true story of the so-called Parker-Hulme murder, the Peter Jackson film explores the experiences and sentiments of two passionately bonded teens (Winslet and Lynskey) who ultimately hatch a plan to off one of their mothers when faced with a forced separation. It’s one of the few films that accurately captures the depth of emotion (and, in this case, the madness) that fuel female friendships, and Winslet’s work as the mysterious Juliet Hulme is enough to inspire, well, perhaps not crime, but at least hot-tempered feelings of devotion.
“Sense and Sensibility” (1996)
Winslet shines in Ang Lee’s adaptation of the beloved Jane Austen novel of the same name, enlivening the tricky role of the seemingly silly Marianne Dashwood. Like most Austen works, the film is openly preoccupied with marrying off its many female characters, but the feature really finds its heart in the relationship between the Dashwood gals, especially Winslet as middle sister Marianne and Emma Thompson as eldest Elinor. While Elinor is forced to be pragmatic in the face of consistent drama, Marianne attempts to make merry whenever and however she can. In Winslet’s hands, however, Marianne’s free spirit is suffused with an underlying seriousness and rich emotion, ultimately finding her way from sense to hard-won sensibility (and an Oscar nomination).
The role that put Winslet on the map — and earned the actress her first Oscar nomination for a leading role — again put her in a period setting as a mixed up aristocrat eager for love to sweep her up and steal her away. As Rose DeWitt Bukater, Winslet is tasked with “never letting go,” but she steals the show whenever it’s time to, well, do just that. As Rose falls head over heels in love with Leonardo DiCaprio’s enthralling Jack Dawson, Winslet’s character finds herself opening up in variety of ways. “Titanic” may be best remembered for its tragic end (both real and cinematic), but Winslet’s Rose finds great happiness throughout, and its her portrayal of those scenes of incandescent joy that are the most stirring and skillful.
Winslet split her work with Judi Dench for Richard Eyre’s 2001 portrait of British novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband John Bayley, and their turns in the wrenching biopic was good enough to earn them both Academy Award nominations. Although Dench gets credit for a lot of the heavy lifting here (the brilliant Murdoch was stricken with Alzheimer’s in her later years), Winslet is ebullient and wonderfully maddening as the younger Iris, bursting with excitement and talent in equal measure.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2005)
There’s nothing quite like watching Winslet fall in love, but Michel Gondry put a canny twist on it with Winslet’s Oscar-nominated turn (noticing a pattern here?) in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” In the ambitious romance, we get to watch Winslet fall in love, and out of it, and then back into it, and out of it and so on and so forth. Winslet’s chemistry with frequent co-star Leonardo DiCaprio is well appreciated, but her work alongside Jim Carrey is something to behold.
“Little Children” (2007)
Winslet earned yet another Oscar nod for her work in Todd Field’s achingly rich “Little Children,” based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name. A contemporary precursor to her work in “Revolutionary Road,” the film finds Winslet’s Sarah Pierce grappling with the confines of suburbia and the demands of marriage and motherhood in a refreshingly honest way. A newfound friendship with fellow parent Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson, who is perfectly cast) opens Sarah up to a wealth of possibilities, and Winslet nimbly maneuvers between a wealth of emotions that threaten to overtake her character at every turn.
“Revolutionary Road” (2009)
Two years later, Winslet explored similar territory in Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road.” Reunited with her “Titanic” costars DiCaprio and Kathy Bates, Winslet plays April Wheeler, a promising actress who gives her life over to the demands of domesticity, only to come to regret it years later. Paired again with DiCaprio, Winslet is able to indelibly capture all the angst and anger just simmering below her beautifully coiffed surface against her (arguably) best partner.
“Mildred Pierce” (2011)
A five-part miniseries directed by Todd Haynes and starring Kate Winslet? Of course it was a slam-dunk. Winslet brought new levels of pathos and vulnerability to her turn as the title character in a moving and finely made miniseries based on James M. Cain’s novel of the same name. As the beleaguered Mildred, Winslet struggles to win the affection of her child while also setting about on other personal and professional pursuits. It’s a low-key performance, but it’s a powerful, steadily growing one.