Kate Winslet is an actress whose performances aren’t defined so much by their rigid technicality, but by their manner of presence. Much like the work of a classical Hollywood movie star, Kate Winslet’s power lies more in the brusque delivery of a cutting line or a piercing glance. There’s a looseness writhing to get out beneath the false composure of her characters, who are almost always marked by their prickly defiance and wit.
Whether bound inside a corset, or to the social and gender mores of a period setting (into which she’s often typecast), there’s a feral charm to her approach. In a movie like “Titanic,” Winslet’s Rose Dewitt Bukater doesn’t quite fit into the stifling world of the early-20th-century upper class; that idea is taken to more contemporary extremes in a movie like “Revolutionary Road” as April Wheeler, a miserable housewife existentially dying in 1950s suburban Connecticut. Winslet can masterfully embody a woman out of place and time, one who mocks decorum with a sneering laugh and (sometimes) a cigarette, but is nevertheless stuck at a “precipice,” as Rose says famously in “Titanic” while staring down the barrel of a dreary dinner party and an arranged marriage.
While Winslet is known for her historic-era roles, it’s also her contemporary turns where the Academy Award-winning actress (and seven-time total nominee) sometimes has the most fun, whether as a lovelorn London columnist in Nancy Meyers’ “The Holiday,” a neon-haired free spirit in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” or even as an adulterous mother in “Little Children,” who finds a giddy thrill in setting her life on fire.
Back in 2021, Winslet turned in another career-best performance on TV following her Emmy-winning turn in “Mildred Pierce”: again on HBO, this time as a hardened police detective with secrets in a small town — the extraordinary “Mare of Easttown.” Next up, she returns to the premium network in “The Palace,” the story of a year within the walls of a crumbling European regime. It’s directed by Stephen Frears and Jessica Hobbs and will co-star Matthias Schoenaerts, Guillaume Gallienne, Andrea Riseborough, Martha Plimpton, and Hugh Grant.
Check out Kate Winslet’s best performances ranked below.
Kate Winslet plays the young and liberated Oxford writer Iris Murdoch in Richard Eyre’s awards-baiting biopic that jumps back and forth between the author’s golden days and her fading hours, much older and succumbing to Alzheimer’s, where she’s played by Judi Dench. Winslet imbues Murdoch with restlessness and a yearning free spirit befitting of the iconoclastic feminist writer. She’s well-matched to Hugh Bonneville, who plays her eventual husband, and the man she pulls out of virginity and introduces to a more libertine world. Even if the movie is an Oscar-chasing treacle, ultimately, Winslet still shines.
18. “The Dressmaker”
Winslet plays a campy femme-fatale seamstress in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s underseen Australian comedy “The Dressmaker” from 2015. Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage (Winslet) returns to her small Aussie town to care for her ailing, mentally washed-out mother (Judy Davis). But with her sewing machine and wits about her, Tilly introduces the women of the outback town to the possibilities of glamor while taking revenge on the men who wronged her in the past. Winslet brings a mix of classical, haute couture style to the role along with slapstick comedy and a feminist determination, the sort of brand she’s made her own.
Kate Winslet plays tragically fated laundress and Marquis de Sade accomplice Madeleine “Maddie” LeClerc in Philip Kaufman’s bawdy, macabre “Quills,” inspired by de Sade’s lascivious writings and his incarceration at an insane asylum in Charenton. In between smuggling de Sade’s manuscripts to a publisher, Madeleine has a darkly erotic chemistry with a Catholic priest, played by Joaquin Phoenix, that ends in ruin. In the 21st century, Winslet went on to branch out of corset costume dramas into more contemporary fare, but “Quills” cemented her as a shining talent for period dramas grappling with intense themes; here, she gives a wounded and fragile performance as a woman caught up in the perverse machinations of men.
16. “Steve Jobs”
There were some concerns about Winslet’s accent as the Polish-born Joanna Hoffmann, confidant and marketing impresario to the Apple pioneer, but who cares when a performance has this much presence? Winslet earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her turn in “Steve Jobs” as one of the (many) women behind the man behind the machine, and she’s a fitting choice to deliver Aaron Sorkin’s quick-clipping monologues and to keep up with Danny Boyle’s constantly roving camera.
Kate Winslet has distanced herself from working with scandal-plagued fugitive filmmaker Roman Polanski in this adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play “God of Carnage.” So what to make of it now? The performance speaks for itself, with Winslet flinging herself with giddy (and very drunken) abandon into the role of a type-A mommy who meets with her husband, played by Christopher Waltz, and couple Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly, to reach a detente over a schoolyard skirmish between their kids. She curses, vomits, and flings vodka, making for one of her most physically comedic turns ever.
14. “The Holiday”
Kate Winslet seems like an unlikely pairing for a Nancy Meyers rom-com set in the present day about 30something professionals looking for love, but she’s a hoot to watch as Iris Simpkins, a Daily Telegraph columnist who decides to houseswap with Cameron Diaz’s character and temporarily relocate to Los Angeles. Meyers apparently wrote the script specifically for Winslet, who channels screwball vibes in a role the actress admitted was out of her comfort zone, but turned out to be a winning fit.
Shakespeare’s Ophelia is a full meal for any actress, but in Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet,” a then-rising Winslet showed incredible skill a year before “Titanic” in a movie that’s equally bulging with volcanic emotion. Winslet leans so fully into Ophelia’s impending madness that you can’t help but think she was having the time of her life debasing herself in this role.
12. “Heavenly Creatures”
Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” opens with Kate Winslet screaming, charging at the camera, her face covered in blood. That’s quite an entrance for an actress barely out of her teen years and making her screen breakout. As Juliet, a posh English teenager who forms an obsessive relationship with the working-class Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), Winslet was a complete revelation whose hunger for chewing up a scene never betrayed the interior demands of her deranged character and script.
11. “Hideous Kinky”
Kate Winslet didn’t let her “Titanic” stardom steer her toward sell-out blockbuster material, but instead looked inward for this adaptation of Esther Freud’s 1992 novel from Scottish filmmaker Gillies MacKinnon. In her first solo leading role she plays Julia, a 20-something English mother disillusioned with conventional life who takes her kids to Morocco. Winslet radiates her character’s wanderlust, and selfishness, in seeking far-flung spiritual fulfillment.
10. “The Reader”
The Oscar-baity vibes of Stephen Daldry’s 2008 post-Holocaust drama “The Reader” are very real, and while Winslet’s Best Actress Oscar win for playing Hanna Schmitz probably constituted an act of serious category fraud, this is still a superb performance. Winslet plays at least two roles in one here, as both the cold, illiterate seductress of a 15-year-old boy and as an eventually imprisoned war criminal tortured by guilt over her complicity in the deaths of Jewish people.
As paleontologist Mary Anning in Francis Lee’s seaside romantic drama “Ammonite,” Kate Winslet has to do some of the most internalized work of her career, turning her emotionally buttoned-up fossil collector inside out as an unexpected connection with a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) throws her tiny, contained world frighteningly out of orbit. Winslet carries the movie’s many subtexts, including an ambiguous relationship with a mentor-figure played by Fiona Shaw, through facial and bodily expressions. She’s a tough nut to crack, and the fact that she remains so up until the movie’s very last shot is a tribute to Winslet’s skill.
8. “Sense and Sensibility”
Kate Winslet’s porcelain features coupled with her emotional inscrutability made her a perfect Marianne Dashwood in this Jane Austin adaptation from Ang Lee. Her being typecast into English period roles no doubt stemmed from this performance, where Winslet embodies her character’s romantic idealism and confusion with a winning touch. It doesn’t hurt that everyone in this movie, from Emma Thompson to Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant, is working at the top of their game.
7. “Mare of Easttown”
“Mare of Easttown” hit the zeitgeist in a major way during its seven-episode run on HBO back in 2021. Winslet scored scads of awards, including a Primetime Emmy, for the limited series, for her turn as stubborn yet charmingly disheveled Pennsylvania detective Mare Sheehan. While the series from writer Brad Ingelsby and director Craig Zobel hit hard for its twists and turns and impeccable casting, it was Winslet’s fully absorbing, warts-and-all performance (East Coast American accent and penchant for Cheez-Whiz included) that grounded “Mare” from the outset. It’s physically and emotionally flawless work.
“Titanic” remains one of the most collosally entertaining movies ever made, and that’s in large part thanks to Kate Winslet’s deservedly Oscar-nominated turn as Rose DeWitt Bukater. Over the course of three hours, Winslet slowly uncorsets this buttoned-up socialite, showcasing the kind of rebellious sensibility that would mark many of her later roles, especially in period films. Even the film’s cheesier elements find ground in Winslet’s hands, making this iconic love story absolutely timeless.
5. “Revolutionary Road”
Anyone who’s read Richard Yates’ cult 1961 novel “Revolutionary Road” (mesmerizingly registered back into the literary canon by director Sam Mendes) knows what a tragic character April Wheeler is. Winslet plays her with the jibber-jabbering affect of a seasoned old Hollywood movie star in a performance that’s hardly method — you almost expect the actress to break down into a mid-Atlantic accent. But at the same time, Winslet makes April feel thoroughly modern, out of place in 1950s Connecticut, chained to a philandering husband (Leonardo DiCaprio). “If black could be made into white by TALKING, you’d be the man for the job!” she howls at Frank in a fit of broken laughter. Winslet simply scorches, and her turn takes on an eerie meta aura once you realize this film about the implosion of a marriage is being directed by her husband, whom she would soon after divorce.
4. “Holy Smoke!”
Winslet could’ve gone mainstream after “Titanic” rocketed her to success and made her a household name, but she instead chose edgier, offbeat projects that challenged her and paired her with visionary directors like Jane Campion with 1999’s “Holy Smoke!” In a movie that delicately teeters between comedy and psychological drama, Winslet plays an Australian woman who has a spiritual awakening while on a trip to India and winds up brainwashed in a cult. Winslet is at her most raw and feral here, throwing herself into the kind of twisted psychosexual codependency that only Campion can conjure with the counselor (Harvey Keitel) sent to deprogram her. And on a side note, a scene featuring Winslet rocking out to Alanis Morissette’s kiss-off anthem “You Oughta Know” is one of the actress’ most meme-worthy moments.
3. “Mildred Pierce”
Todd Haynes is a heavenly match made for any towering screen actress (see also Cate Blanchett in “Carol” and “I’m Not There,” and Julianne Moore in “Safe” and “Far From Heaven”). But Haynes, Kate Winslet, James M. Cain, and HBO? The stuff of small-screen magic. Across five episodes, Emmy winner Winslet embodies the patient ferocity of the self-made Mildred Pierce, deepening with every installment as she starts her own business, finds trouble in love, and struggles to contain her spoiled brat daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). It’s not that Mildred’s defiant contours don’t fit into 1930s America — it’s that that world can’t contain her. IndieWire’s Ben Travers puts it succinctly: “‘Mildred Pierce’ sees Winslet in peak form, mastering an era-appropriate elocution, posture, and wardrobe while her day-to-day actions completely upend expectations.”
2. “Little Children”
Kate Winslet dug deep for “Little Children” as Sarah Pierce, a wife and mother ambivalent about her domestic life. Todd Field’s boldly literary adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel about suburban ennui is a showcase for Winslet’s most emotionally complex performance. It’s thrilling to watch her tumble down the rabbit hole with her illicit lover Brad (Patrick Wilson), known by the other wives on the playground as “The Prom King,” and while a story arc revolving around a book club discussion of “Madame Bovary” sounds on the nose for a movie about the consequences of adultery, Winslet makes her character’s quiet rebellion against a life of unhappiness astonishing to watch.
1. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
“I’m just a fucked-up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.” Kate Winslet gives easily her most delightfully unhinged performance as ever as Clementine, the female half of the romantic on-and-off couple in Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Words can hardly do justice to how iconic this character is in pop culture, but Clementine has plenty of wise ones to fill in that gap, with Winslet bringing Kaufman’s script to melancholy life. Much like Jim Carrey’s Joel Barrish, you fall in love with Clementine (and Winslet) again and again; it’s a performance that bears repeat viewings.
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