20. Before You Go (2002)
Lewis Gilbert directed Walters in her seminal movie debut, Educating Rita, and although this stagey and subdued film (Gilbert’s last) doesn’t have anything like the fizz of that, Walters gives it her considerable best. She is the eldest of three sisters uneasily reunited for their mother’s funeral (the other two are Joanne Whalley and Victoria Hamilton). Walters is Teresa, a housewife devoted to her mother’s memory and very domineering when it comes to her husband, played by Tom Wilkinson. A strong character performance.
19. Girls’ Night (1998)
It’s a tearjerker and a heartwarmer; these things can be a bit formulaic, but Walters puts some heat under this. She is Jackie, the funny, lippy mate of Dawn, played by Brenda Blethyn, who is a lot quieter and devoted to her family. When Dawn gets cancer, Jackie decides the best thing is for the two of them to go on a massive girls-night-out trip to Las Vegas, using Dawn’s recent winnings from the bingo. In many ways, the emotional dynamic is similar to Calendar Girls, but this is likable stuff.
18. Paddington (2014)
This film and its 2017 sequel were tremendous treats, and there was surely never any doubt as to who was going to play Mrs Bird, who in Michael Bond’s original books was the Brown family’s no-nonsense housekeeper, keeping a keen eye on Paddington’s misdemeanours. Walters plays the role very nicely, and in fact Mrs Bird’s existence has been updated a bit – she is now a sort of vaguely defined family friend or distant cousin – although there isn’t much for her to do.
17. Wah-Wah (2005)
This was Richard E Grant’s bittersweet movie memoir of his boyhood in Swaziland in southern Africa in the late 60s, just before independence. The grownups were the sun-dried white colonialists, bored, alcoholic, adulterous, casually racist. Nicholas Hoult plays the lonely teen Ralph (a version of Grant) and Walters pinches every scene as “Auntie” Gwen, who enjoys jokes about liking drinks “stiff” and whose husband is having an affair with Ralph’s mother.
16. Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
Walters has a very brief role in this superlative film, but she makes it count. She plays Elsie Orton, the mother of the dramatist Joe Orton (Gary Oldman), who is flustered when a council official comes round to congratulate Joe on his theatrical talent. She gestures at Joe’s father, saying: “That’s my husband, ignore him.” Walters continues to take a bite out of this film even after her character is dead. Elsie wore a complete set of false teeth and after her demise, Joe gives these teeth as a prop to the female actor playing a fictional version of her in his new play.
15. Wild Rose (2018)
Another “mum” role for Walters, but with a seriousness and tenderness that movie screenwriters don’t often let her show. She is Marion, the mother of Rose, played by Jessie Buckley, a young woman with two kids who has been in trouble with the law and now lives with her mum under house arrest, wearing an ankle bracelet. But Rose has got a brilliant singing voice and a passion for country music, so it seems that it’s Marion’s job to look after her children while Rose chases the showbiz dream. Walters conveys Marion’s complex mix of frustration and love.
14. Buster (1988)
Walters plays June, the poignantly disaffected wife of Buster Edwards, one of Britain’s “Great Train Robbery” gang who stole millions in 1963 and – although unarmed – brutally coshed the train driver, who never fully recovered. Walters has a nice rapport with Phil Collins playing Buster and with Sheila Hancock as her mother. When she and Buster have to be extradition exiles in Brazil, she is stricken with homesickness and returns to Blighty before, finally, Buster comes back to be with her. Not a masterpiece, perhaps, but Walters is very good at selling a motherly/wifely role with wit.
13. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)
In this true-life drama, Walters offers another of the quietly modulated supporting-character turns that have lent substance to so many movies. This one has a subtle complexity – and she was reunited with Jamie Bell, with whom she had a glorious performance in Billy Elliot. She plays Bella, the Liverpool-dwelling mother of Peter Turner (Bell), the young actor who in the late 70s was having an age-gap love-affair with the famed Hollywood star Gloria Grahame, played by Annette Bening. Long after their relationship has come to a painful end, the ageing and deeply unwell movie star poignantly asks to stay with Peter’s mum and dad. Walters shows how Bella, initially a kind of rival to the quasi-maternal Gloria, in effect becomes a caring mum for her.
12. Becoming Jane (2007)
Walters plays the mother of Jane Austen in a speculative biopic that, with pastiche-Austen protocol, imagines the possibility that Austen had a real-life romance with a young Irish lawyer, played by James McAvoy. Walters’s Mrs Austen says things such as: “Affection is desirable; money is absolutely indispensable.” But Walters’s most startling moment comes when Jane’s father, Rev George Austen (James Cromwell) snuggles down in the marital bed to perform an act of oral love on Jane’s mother. With the cares of so many children, it was perhaps the only intimacy he considered prudent.
11. Effie Gray (2014)
This is a juicy, nasty role for Walters in an interesting film scripted by Emma Thompson: the overbearing and malevolent figure Mrs Ruskin, mother of the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin (played by Greg Wise). She icily disapproves of his marriage to an impudent young woman, Effie Gray (Dakota Fanning) – a marriage that was famously to founder on the wedding night, due to Ruskin’s apparent fastidious horror that a real woman’s body was different from the classical nude. Walters is ferociously hostile to Effie and brings an effortless air of malign contempt.
10. Sister My Sister (1994)
The real-life murder case from France that inspired Jean Genet’s The Maids was also the source of Wendy Kesselman’s 1988 play My Sister in This House, which she adapted for the screen with Nancy Meckler directing. The result is a strange, stylised, claustrophobically dark satirical drama. Walters plays the unspeakable Mme Danzard – smug, wealthy, entitled – who lives with her pampered daughter, Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield). Their relationship is bizarre, dysfunctional and unfolds in tandem with that of their sensuous, mutinous maids (played by Jodhi May and Joely Richardson). The power dynamic explodes in violence. Walters provides a discreet, potent spark.
9. Intimate Relations (1996)
Walters gave what some believe was one of her most underrated performances in this bizarre blackly comic crime drama based on the macabre real-life case of Albert Goozee, who in 1956 murdered his landlady and her teenage daughter. (Having been freed from Broadmoor in 1971, he was convicted of another sexual assault case in 1996, the year of this film’s release, which could account for its muted reception.) Walters gives a powerhouse serio-comic turn as Marjorie, a bustling and sexually repressed landlady having an oedipal affair with her young lodger (Rupert Graves) while involving her teenaged daughter in this unwholesome ménage-à-trois. Walters has a fierce, driven presence.
8. Driving Lessons (2006)
Walters has an enormous amount of fun with her role here – as do the audience. She plays “Dame” Evie Walton, a terribly grand retired star of stage and screen (although her damehood seems to exist only in her head) who towards the end of her career only appeared in Acorn-Antiques-type telly, and now spends her time declaiming Shakespeare in her back garden. She hires a nervy young assistant (played by Rupert Grint) and insists that he drive her everywhere in Miss Daisy style, despite the fact that he is only a learner himself. This shy and lonely young man finds an unexpected friend and ally in Dame Evie.
7. Mamma Mia! (2008)
There may not be a very big role for Walters here, but if ever an actor was utterly in tune with the feel, the tone and the audience of a big movie franchise it is Walters in Mamma Mia! and the distinctively weirder Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018), the colossally corny yet lucrative and widely adored jukebox musicals based on the songs of Abba. Walters radiates fun and humour, playing Rosie – who along with Tanya (Christine Baranski) is the best friend and former bandmate of Donna (Meryl Streep) who was in a group called Donna and the Dynamos. Walters is an important dilithium crystal powering the film.
6. Calendar Girls (2003)
A cracking performance from Walters in a movie that was to become a feelgood pop culture phenomenon, both in the cinema and on the London stage. It is based on the true story of the Rylstone and District branch of the WI in Yorkshire, which becomes a media sensation after bringing out a cheeky semi-nude calendar to raise money for a local hospital. Walters plays Annie, the tough widow behind everything, her gutsy humour and fierce common sense concealing her hurt and vulnerability. Helen Mirren plays Chris, her fearless mate, with whom she has an awful row when the Calendar Girls become an international and over-commercialised hit.
5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)
Harry Potter is famously a hero all alone in the world; an orphan. And so there could hardly be a more important or quasi-maternal figure to the youthful Harry, at least at first, than the mum of his mate Ron Weasley – that is, Molly Weasley, played by Walters, who is crucially to introduce Harry to the mystery of Platform 9¾. Walters was in seven out of the eight Potter films and her apotheosis came in the final movie, in which Molly takes on the death eater Lieutenant Bellatrix Lestrange (played by Helena Bonham Carter) when Bellatrix nearly kills her daughter, Ginny. “Not my daughter, you bitch!” snarls Walters and there is an epic wand duel between the two of them.
4. Brooklyn (2015)
Walters delivered a glorious blast of focused comedy in this heartfelt drama, based on the Colm Toibin novel, with Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, a shy young woman who emigrates from 50s Ireland and finds herself in New York, where she finds love with an Italian boy. Her landlady is the sharp-tongued Mrs Kehoe, sumptuously played by Walters, who presides over a nightly dinner that all her young tenant ladies are expected to attend. She is on the lookout for any sign of giggly flightiness. “I’ll tell you this much,” Kehoe snaps. “I am going to ask Father Flood to preach a sermon on the dangers of giddiness. I now see that giddiness is the eighth deadly sin. A giddy girl is every bit as evil as a slothful man, and the noise she makes is a lot worse!”
3. Personal Services (1987)
This was the one of the great performances from Walters in this subversively unsexy sex comedy, all about the joyless hypocrisy of the British approach to sex. She plays Christine Painter, based on the real-life suburban “madam” and brothel keeper Cynthia Payne. Her Christine is an essentially placid soul who rises from being a waitress to hosting regular “parties” that are bizarrely ordinary in their outlook, offering tea and cooked breakfasts to follow whatever pervy shenanigans are demanded by her clients, who include high court judges. Walters plays a woman who presides over a world, not of exciting erotica, but absurdly tacky and dull kitchen-sink drear.
2. Educating Rita (1983)
This was the sensational and Oscar-nominated performance, in a movie adapted from Willy Russell’s stage hit, that launched the 33-year-old Walters towards becoming a national treasure, although not to the international stardom that appeared at first to be possible. Walters (wise and sane as always) decided that Hollywood was not for her. It was perhaps the only movie role in which she was a young and quasi-romantic female lead – playing a tough working-class autodidact called Susan, who has rechristened herself after the feminist author Rita Mae Brown. She attends night-school tutorials run by a boozy and disillusioned old humanities professor, wonderfully played by Michael Caine, and demands instruction in English literature. Her heartbreaking trust and naivety in his abilities and the power of literature itself causes Caine’s raddled old don to question himself and fall in love with her. Walters delivered a spiky megavolt jolt to the movie, and perhaps to the stagnant world of Brit cinema generally with her fierce and passionate performance.
1. Billy Elliot (2000)
“Miss, you don’t fancy me, do you?” “No, Billy. Funnily enough, I don’t. Now piss off!” Walters’s delivery of her line, holding on the pause with masterly skill, and then rebuking Billy for his presumption while keeping it light, showed her control of this great role. She plays Mrs Wilkinson, the dance teacher into whose class young Billy (Jamie Bell) accidentally strays while supposedly taking boxing lessons next door and in which he shows precious talent. The exchange comes when Mrs Wilkinson tells Billy: “For some time now I’ve been thinking about the Royal Ballet school.” – “Aren’t you a bit old, miss?” “No, not me, YOU! I’m the BLOODY TEACHER!”
Walters and Bell had a wonderful rapport in this film, and were, apart from everything else, a great comedy double act. She takes it upon herself to teach him and in some ways she is a redeemed, hopeful version of Caine’s professor in Educating Rita. And her relationship with Billy reaches its high point in the outstanding dance scene they have together to the accompaniment of T Rex’s I Love to Boogie. It’s a modern Brit cinema classic – an irresistibly funny, lovable sequence, perhaps because Walters is not, in fact, a natural dancer. But she gives it everything she’s got and the result is genuinely joyful.