Here’s a bit of information sure to give pause to moviegoers of a certain age: Kate Winslet plays a grandmother in the new HBO series Mare of Easttown. True, she’s an unusually young grandmother, one just 25 years from her glory days as a high school athlete, but the math still works, however jarring it seems. Now 45, Kate Winslet first gained international attention as a teenager via her terrifyingly intense work in Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures. Born into a family of actors, she had already worked steadily on the stage and in British television for years by that point, which helps explain the confidence she exhibits in the role, and why it’s a bit confusing that she’s now reached middle age: as an actor, she did little growing up in public. She was always that good.
That said, Winslet leans into the midlife weariness for Mare of Easttown, which requires her to play a haunted, and frequently exhausted, small-town Pennsylvania detective (while attempting one of the most difficult accents known to actors). It’s also a case of an actor making their history work for them. Just as part of the effectiveness of Revolutionary Road comes from watching Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, who famously played starry-eyed lovers in Titanic, take on characters grappling with romantic disenchantment, Winslet’s Mare performance works as a contrast with the youthful (and, occasionally maniacal) exuberance of her early roles. It may be shocking to think of her playing a grandmother, but she has the skills and the history to suggest the weight of the world. Though it would be easy enough to keep going, below are ten of Winslet’s best performances (and where you can stream them).
10. Sense and Sensibility (1995)
The 1990s saw a flowering of Jane Austen adaptations that cracked the code of capturing the vibrancy, humor, and deep emotions of Austen’s novels largely by creating rich settings then letting actors give life to Austen’s characters in ways that didn’t make them feel as if they’d been cut and pasted from the pages of beloved books. This Ang Lee-directed film was among the first, a film filled with attention to local customs and generational conflicts Lee brought to early work like Eat Drink Man Woman. Winslet stars opposite Emma Thompson (who also scripted) and the two make a great pair, with Winslet playing the impulsive Marianne Dashwood against Thompson’s work as her more cautious sister Elinor. It’s the opposite of a stuffy costume drama for many reasons, Winslet’s full-blooded performance not least among them. Her work earned Winslet her first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress. It wouldn’t be her last.
9. Hamlet (1996)
Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy is an unrelenting spectacle with many high points but it’s also hampered by the decision to squeeze in as many big-name actors as possible whether they suited the piece or not. (Hey, look! It’s Jack Lemmon!) Winslet, however, makes for an inspired Ophelia. She’d played mad before (look for that entry a little higher on this list) and here she fuses her ability to play scary and fevered to one of Shakespeare’s most haunting depictions of a mind that’s teetered over the edge.
8. Hideous Kinky (1998)
The success of Titanic made Winslet a household name and could easily have allowed her to transition full-time into big-budget Hollywood movies. Instead, she seemingly decided to pick up what she’d been doing before appearing in what was then the most financially successful movie of all time: taking challenging roles in unconventional projects. Most immediately, that meant starring in this Gillies MacKinnon-directed adaptation of Esther Freud’s semi-autobiographical novel about Julia, a British woman looking for spiritual enlightenment in Morocco in the early ’70s while raising two children. Winslet lets Julia embody the era’s seeking qualities without losing sight of the cost paid for her search for enlightenment — both by herself and those around her.
7. Revolutionary Road (2008)
Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel about suburban discontent in early-‘60s America sometimes wants for subtlety, but it’s worth watching to see Winslet and DiCaprio play opposite one another. The Titanic reunion could have felt like a stunt, but their on-screen history deepens the tragedy of love gone sour. Though the timeline doesn’t exactly match up, in some ways, it plays like a bit of alternate history. What if Jack and Rose had both survived, gotten married, and it had all worked out horribly?
6. Titanic (1997)
Speaking of Titanic, the list of actors who almost got the parts of Jack and Rose is long and fascinating. (Jared Leto and Reese Witherspoon?) But try to imagine the film working with different leads. It just doesn’t work (or, at the very least, it’s a much different movie). James Cameron fills the film’s final act with amazing set pieces, but none of that would have mattered if DiCaprio and Winslet didn’t spend the hours leading up to it making us care about the fates of their characters and believe their brief encounter had led to true love. Winslet beautifully plays the part of a rebellious spirit who’s starting to realize the world has put up some walls to keep women in their place that even her willfulness might not be able to kick down. It’s the story of a famous shipwreck, sure, but also of a woman trying to embrace the new possibilities of a young century.
5. Iris (2001)
Winslet picked up a second Oscar nomination, this one for Best Actress, for Titanic and her third for work in this biopic about the life of novelist Iris Murdoch. She plays Murdoch as another indomitable spirit rebelling against the conventions of her age in a film bookended by Judi Dench’s performance as the older Murdoch. The two complement each other beautifully, deepening the work of one another as they play Murdoch at opposite ends of her life.
4. Holy Smoke! (1999)
More Oscar nominations would follow, if not always for the best films in which Winslet appeared. She won a Best Actress trophy for The Reader (she’s quite good, but the movie is skippable and a little queasy in its tasteful insistence on emphasizing the humanity of a Nazi war criminal) and picked up another Best Actress nomination Little Children (a fine, if relentlessly morose, study of contemporary suburban rot) and Best Supporting nominations for Steve Jobs and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (more on the latter below). Occasionally her most daring work went without nomination, like her performance in Jane Campion’s unclassifiable drama Holy Smoke! Winslet plays Ruth, an Australian woman whose family hires a cult deprogrammer named P.J. (Harvey Keitel) in an attempt to remove her from the influence of a spiritual guru. A scary, sexually graphic battle of wills follows, one in which P.J. never really has the upper hand. It’s an uncomfortable-by-design film that finds Winslet, Keitel, and Campion all happily pushing the material as far as it will go.
3. Mildred Pierce (2011)
Winslet did a lot of television work early in her career then largely ignored the medium in favor of films until teaming up with director Todd Haynes for this five-part adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel. Mildred Pierce had famously been filmed once before by Michael Curtiz in a film that gave Joan Crawford one of her most famous roles. Here, Haynes and Winslet seem determined to zig wherever that film zagged, favoring depth and detail over the original’s heightened emotions. That’s in no way a knock on the original Mildred Pierce or Crawford’s performance, a perfect match of heightened emotions and noir atmosphere. It’s just that this version succeeds on different terms. Winslet matches Haynes’ decision to dig into the Depression-era atmosphere with a careful study of a woman struggling to stay afloat against long odds while dealing with a… let’s say complicated relationship with her daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).
2. Heavenly Creatures (1994)
There’s a reason this movie, inspired by a true story, put Winslet on the map. She’s unnervingly convincing as Juliet, an English-born New Zealand teenager who slips into a fantasy land with her best friend Pauline (Melanie Lynskey, who went onto her own memorable career after debuting here). Jackson’s inventive visuals capture the world they create together while the performances suggest the dark side of that creation — and a mounting danger that ultimately leads to murder.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
In many respects, Winslet’s Heavenly Creatures work served as preparation for her turn in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Directed by Michel Gondry from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, the film similarly uses inventive visuals and a twisty structure but wouldn’t work without a cast grounding it in real, sometimes raw, human emotion. Drawing on alternately romantic and uncomfortable emotions — sometimes in rapid succession as the narrative leaps about in time — Winslet plays Clementine, a woman who chooses to erase the memories of her boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey) to break the cycle of their tumultuous romance. The bittersweet yearning of Carrey and Winslet’s performances is what gives the film its power. In the midst of the film’s mad swirl, she’s a beacon of fragile, flawed humanity. It’s what she does best.