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The excellent Samantha Morton has just received a BAFTA TV Award nomination for her performance in I Am Kirsty, a hard-hitting one-off drama about a single mother struggling to make ends meet in modern-day Britain, which she also co-wrote. Since she landed her first TV role at age 14 in 1991, the English actress has been a consistently compelling screen presence, so her latest accolade gives us a very welcome excuse to round up some (but not all) of her career highlights.

1. Under the Skin (1997)

After making her name in ’90s British crime drama Band of Gold, Morton’s movie breakthrough came in this acclaimed indie film about two sisters (Morton and Claire Rushbrook) coping with the death of their mother. She won several festival awards for her devastatingly intense performance as Iris, a fragile young woman who feels suffocated by her boyfriend but finds life even tougher after she leaves him.

2. Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Morton earned an Academy Award nomination for only her third ever movie, this bittersweet Woody Allen comedy-drama. She plays Hattie, a mute woman who enters into a relationship with an unreliable 1930s jazz musician (Sean Penn). In a completely speech-free role, Morton’s natural expressiveness and human qualities shine through, creating a character you really care about.

3. In America (2002)

Morton earned her second Academy Award nomination for her brilliant performance in this affecting drama from director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot). She and Paddy Considine play an Irish couple recovering from a personal tragedy who pursue the age-old American dream by moving to Hell’s Kitchen in NYC, where they bond with a terminally ill artist who lives in their building (Djimon Hounsou). It’s a beautifully performed tear-jerker that’s well worth seeking out.

4. Minority Report (2002)

Morton hasn’t made many big Hollywood blockbusters – and revealed in 2010 that she’d turned down an X-Men role – but she did say yes to this well-regarded Steven Spielberg sci-fi flick. Starring opposite Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell, she plays a “precog” who can psychically identify criminals before they commit their misdemeanors in a semi-utopian future world. It’s a powerful performance which won her a Saturn Award.

5. Longford (2006)

Morton admitted that she “initially didn’t even want to look at the script” for this television film written by Peter Morgan, which is based on a controversial and highly emotive true-crime story. It follows upper-crust British activist Lord Longford (Jim Broadbent) as he campaigns for the release of Myra Hindley (Morton), one of the U.K.’s most detested serial killers of modern times. It’s a tough watch, but there’s no denying the intelligent sensitivity of Morton’s performance, which duly earned her a BAFTA nomination.

6. Control (2007)

Morton has said she generally doesn’t like biopics, but she made an exception for this film about Ian Curtis, troubled frontman of influential post-punk band Joy Division. She’s on quietly heartbreaking form as his widow Deborah Curtis, who supports the singer as he lives with severe epilepsy, but is then devastated when he cheats. Control is based on Deborah’s book about life with the late rock star, and Morton turns in a suitably dignified and faithful performance.

7. Synecdoche, New York (2008)

The directorial debut from Charlie Kaufman, who’d previously written Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is a deeply surreal and polarizing drama about a theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who blurs the lines between fact and fiction when he writes on an autobiographical play. In a typically committed performance which required heavy prosthetics to age her from 30 to 64, Morton is on compelling form as Hazel, the director’s sympathetic mistress.

8. The Messenger (2009)

Morton picked up an array of nominations for her moving performance in this emotional drama set soon after the Iraq war. She plays Olivia, a grieving widow who finds herself attracted to Tony (Ben Foster), the army sergeant who alongside fellow military man Stone (Woody Harrelson) breaks the tragic news to her. It’s a sad but also at times very funny movie driven by a trio of fine performances.

9. Rillington Place (2016)

This chilling BBC miniseries tells the story of John Christie, a serial killer who murdered at least eight people in postwar London. Morton co-stars opposite Tim Roth as Ethel Christie, his loyal wife, who continues to make excuses for her husband even as his behavior becomes increasingly bizarre and abusive. Roth and Morton are both excellent, as is a pre-Killing Eve Jodie Comer who portrays Beryl Evans, one of Christie’s victims.

10. Harlots (2017-)

This Hulu period drama is a fun, campy, and subtly feminist delight: Morton and Lesley Manville star as madams running rival brothels in 18th century London, heading up a strong ensemble cast that includes Downton Abbey alumnus Jessica Brown Findlay and Killing Eve‘s Danny Sapani. There’s no news on a fourth season yet (season three premiered in July 2019), but fingers crossed – and in the meantime, Harlots makes a great quarantine binge-watch if you haven’t seen it already.

11. The Walking Dead (2019-2020)

Morton joined AMC’s post-apocalyptic horror series in season 9 as Alpha, the leader of the Whisperers and a clear threat to Jeffrey Dean Morgan‘s Negan. An episode featuring Alpha’s origin story required Morton to shave her head on camera – something she said she “loved” doing – and her driven, resilient character remains an integral presence in the show’s 10th and most recent season.

Have we missed one of your favorite Samantha Morton roles?

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Filed Under: Samantha Morton
By Nick Levine