Total Recall

Lena Headey's Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Mortal Instruments: City of Bones star.

by | August 22, 2013 | Comments

Lena Headey

A lot of her time is taken up with Game of Thrones these days, but Lena Headey hasn’t forsaken her film career; in fact, she’ll be seen in an impressive six movies (and counting) between 2013-14. One of those projects, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, is arriving in theaters this weekend, so we decided now would be the perfect time to take an appreciative look back at some of her most critically successful cinematic efforts. From quiet British dramas to Disney flicks and horror films, Lena’s done a lot — and it doesn’t look like she’ll be slowing down anytime soon. Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the finest bits of her filmography here!


10. Onegin

One person’s sumptuously acted period romance is another person’s glacially paced snoozer — and so it is with Onegin, first-time director Martha Fiennes’ adaptation of the 1833 Russian novel about an arrogant dandy (Ralph Fiennes) whose rather careless treatment of two sisters (played by Headey and Liv Tyler) puts him at fateful odds with his friend (Toby Stephens). While Onegin was warmly received by critics on the global stage, earning a BAFTA nomination for Best Picture, the majority of American scribes found it too slow and mannered to breathe life into the book’s deliberate drama — although it did have its defenders, including Combustible Celluloid’s Jeffrey M. Anderson, who wrote, “Overall, Onegin is a bit of a sloppy and untidy affair, but that goes a long way in distinguishing it from the 7000 other movies of this type.”


9. Waterland

Headey earned her big break in 1992’s Waterland, Stephen Gyllenhaal’s tastefully assembled adaptation of the Graham Swift novel about a teacher (Jeremy Irons) who tries relating to his troubled students by filling them in on his turbulent youth in eastern England. While far from her most prominent role, Headey’s appearance in Waterland kicked off her film career by surrounding her with an array of talented stars that also included Ethan Hawke and the legendary Pete Postlethwaite — and made her part of a solidly assembled indie drama that earned positive reviews from critics like Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who wrote, “With a dazed, frightened expression and the keen sense that his life is coming undone, Mr. Irons’s Tom becomes a rivetingly sad figure, and a sharp focus for the film’s many reveries.”


8. 300

She’s made her fair share of corseted period pictures, but Lena Headey is also no stranger to genre fare, having appeared in a string of horror movies throughout her career — and the twain sort of met in 2007’s 300, which coupled historically-inspired drama against good old-fashioned blood and guts, all lavishly filmed with director Zack Snyder’s distinctive lens. Inspired by Frank Miller’s comic (which was in turn inspired by the Battle of Thermopylae), 300 racked up more than $450 million in worldwide grosses, thanks to audiences’ unquenchable thirst for great-looking men (including a well-muscled Gerard Butler) and women (including Headey as the occasionally unclothed Queen Gorgo) taking part in impossibly bloody swords ‘n’ sandals drama; it also found purchase with a surprising number of critics, including Jack Mathews of the New York Daily News, who admitted, “It’s impossible not to be moved by its nearly nonstop visual assault.”


7. Possession

Neil LaBute isn’t exactly known for his way with romance, but the famously misanthropic writer/director made a well-received foray into the genre with the pleasantly twisty Possession, starring Gwyneth Paltrow opposite LaBute mainstay Aaron Eckhart as a pair of modern-day literary scholars whose investigation into the possibility of an affair between a pair of Victorian poets (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle) leads to an unexpected love connection of their own. As Ehle’s potentially spurned partner, Headey rounded out a supporting cast that included Tom Hollander and Toby Stephens; “While the film probably won’t leave you swooning,” admitted Connie Ogle of the Miami Herald, “it is at least an earnest love letter to its transcendent source.”


6. The Summer House (Clothes in the Wardrobe)

Headey is dishwater-dull as the betrothed Margaret in The Summer House, but that isn’t her fault — the character, as written by Alice Thomas Ellis in her novel and as adapted by director Waris Hussein here, serves as the mousy counterpoint to the story’s true star, a larger-than-life family friend (unforgettably played by Jeanne Moreau) who swans in to save her from being pushed into marrying the limp-wristed boy next door (David Threlfall). It didn’t make much of an impression at the box office, but House was generally well regarded by critics — if only as a vehicle for the irrepressible Moreau, whose stack of accolades included a review from the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley. Describing “her acid tongue and her flaming hair,” Kempley credited her with devouring “this droll British comedy as if it were chaparral and she a raging California brush fire.”


5. Mrs. Dalloway

It may not have technically been a Merchant Ivory movie, but 1997’s Mrs. Dalloway — a lovingly faithful adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel, starring Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Dalloway and featuring a well-rounded cast of talented English actors that included Headey and Rupert Graves — fit squarely into the beautifully filmed run of classic British arthouse romances that the studio released during the ’90s. Warning that the book’s “complex story structure is virtually impossible to reproduce on the screen,” Jeff Vice of the Salt Lake City Deseret News countered, “but thanks to Redgrave’s dazzling turn and some other fine performances, director Marleen Gorris and screenwriter Eileen Atkins come reasonably close.”


4. Dredd

Following Sylvester Stallone’s clumsily cartoonish 1995 adaptation of the property, Hollywood avoided the idea of a Judge Dredd movie for a solid decade — but by the middle aughts, with everything old starting to feel new again in studio boardrooms, development slowly ground into gear on what would become 2012’s Dredd. Starring Karl Urban as the distinctively helmeted law enforcer and Headey as a drug dealer who’s plaguing his city with a dangerous new substance nicknamed “Slo-Mo,” this grittily faithful (and ultra-violent) take on the popular comic repented for most of the original movie’s sins — and although it failed to score with audiences, it proved a surprising favorite with critics like Tim Grierson of Deadspin, who beseeched, “If Hollywood is going to be indicted for making mindlessly violent action films, let them at least be as good as this one.”


3. Aberdeen

After paying her dues with a number of smaller supporting roles, Heady started coming into her own in the late ’90s — and she graduated into the leading-lady ranks with 2000’s Aberdeen, a road trip drama about an emotionally stunted young woman (Headey) whose life is turned upside down when she gets a call from her mother (Charlotte Rampling) informing her that she needs to bring her dying father (Stellan Skarsgard) to the hospital. Do they meet unusual people and have unforgettable adventures? Do they learn a little something about themselves and each other? You bet they do, but Aberdeen‘s relatively predictable narrative arc was offset by the talent assembled on both sides of the camera; as Stanley Kauffman wrote for the New Republic, “I cannot think of another film that treats so heatedly the range of emotional possibilities between a young woman and her father.”


2. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book

Headey continued her streak of supporting roles in handsomely mounted early ’90s productions with Disney’s Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, a fresh adaptation of the classic story starring Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli, Headey as his love interest Kitty Brydon, and rounded out by an eclectic supporting cast that included John Cleese, Sam Neill, and Cary Elwes. With a marginally more realistic presentation and a rip-roaring, serial-inspired tone established by director Stephen Sommers, this Book reminded a lot of critics more of Raiders of the Lost Ark than anything Kipling ever wrote — but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as David Ansen argued for Newsweek. “Kipling purists may not cotton to Disney’s new live-action version of The Jungle Book,” Ansen admitted, “but it’s hard to think of anyone else who won’t be enchanted.”


1. The Remains of the Day

Shortly after landing her breakout role in Waterland, Headey found herself acting among giants on the set of The Remains of the Day, a Merchant Ivory drama adapted from the Kazuo Ishiguro novel about an implacable butler (Anthony Hopkins) and the comparatively hot-tempered housekeeper who grows to love him (Emma Thompson) during their years together in a pre-World War II British estate. Not the stuff of blockbuster epics, obviously, but it picked up eight Academy Award nominations and offered Headey an early (albeit extremely limited) opportunity to share screen time with a gaudy list of co-stars that included Hugh Grant and Christopher Reeve. Among Remains‘ many appreciative critics was Variety’s Todd McCarthy, who wrote, “All the meticulousness, intelligence, taste and superior acting that one expects from Merchant Ivory productions have been brought to bear.”

In case you were wondering, here are Headey’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. 300 — 88%
2. The Remains of the Day — 85%
3. Aberdeen — 76%
4. Dredd — 73%
5. Face — 69%
6. Imagine Me & You — 67%
7. Onegin — 67%
8. The Summer House (Clothes in the Wardrobe) — 63%
9. St. Trinian’s — 57%
10. Possession — 57%

Take a look through Headey’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.

Finally, here’s the music video for Ilya’s “Bellissimo,” which features Lena Headey and Martin Freeman:

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