The fact that Michelle Williams received her fourth Academy nomination for a role in Manchester by the Sea that is little more than a cameo – albeit one of central importance – is testament to the dramatic power she has as an actor. From her very earliest roles in the likes of TV teen drama Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003) and slasher Halloween H20 (1998), and whether lead or support, Williams has commanded the screen whenever she was on it, her natural talent and versatility having become a guaranteed mark of quality. Here are 10 of her best turns.
Me without You (2001)
Director Sandra Goldbacher
Sandra Goldbacher’s second feature is a tour-de-force exploration of flawed female friendship from adolescence in the mid-1970s to adulthood over a decade later. Boasting a superb British accent, Williams is genuine-hearted Holly, whose longstanding relationship with best pal Marina (Anna Friel) – already rocky, thanks to Marina’s selfish, sabotaging nature – is threatened when they both fall for the same college professor. While Holly is supposed to be the less sexy of the pair, Williams’ journey from awkward teen to self-assured woman is effortlessly alluring.
The Station Agent (2003)
Director Tom McCarthy
Tom McCarthy’s pitch-perfect drama is notable not only for introducing the incredible Peter Dinklage to a wider audience but also for boasting another memorable performance from Williams. She is Emily, a librarian who finds herself unwantedly pregnant and turns to new friend Finbar McBride (Dinklage) for support. While their relationship remains purely platonic, even though Emily doesn’t try to hide her attraction to Finbar, their chemistry – and Williams’ homespun charm – is one of the film’s many highlights.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Director Ang Lee
One of Williams’ most impressive strengths is the way in which she takes on traditional female roles – mother, lover or, in this case, wife – and uses it to subvert expectations. As the tortured wife of Heath Ledger’s closeted homosexual cowboy, Ennis, the character of Alma could so easily have been nothing more than a cipher for female sacrifice and suffering; in Williams’ hands, it’s a slow-burn portrayal of the breakdown of trust. Ultimately, she puts her own happiness first and leaves Ennis, remarrying by the film’s end and finding the love she so richly deserves.
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
Director Kelly Reichardt
In the first of three films to date with writer-director Kelly Reichardt – Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Certain Women (2016) have since followed – Williams again explores the diversity of the female experience. Along with her beloved dog, Lucy, Williams’ Wendy is making her slow way to Alaska in a vague search for work. When her car breaks down in the middle of Oregon and Lucy goes missing, Wendy is consumed by the search for her. Wandering around the alien landscape her hope dims but never entirely fades. It’s a desperate, moving performance that elevates this intimate story into something with universal resonance.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Directors Charlie Kaufman
Charlie Kaufman’s twisting drama is a beguiling piece of filmmaking, spanning 40 years in the life of theatre director Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his attempt to mount his most ambitious, autobiographical play as his body succumbs to a mysterious illness. As Claire, the lead actress in his sprawling production, Williams is luminescent – it’s no surprise that Caden is mesmerised by and marries her – and navigates the complex narrative angles of this story without ever losing sight of the warmth and authenticity of her character.
Blue Valentine (2010)
Director Derek Cianfrance
Derek Cianfrance’s searing anti-love story hinges almost entirely on its central performances, and both Ryan Gosling and Williams are mesmerising as the lovers enduring the most painful of breakups. As the story criss-crosses time, revealing moments of passionate intimacy and raw anger, Williams conveys a woman both enthralled by new love and horrified where it has taken her. Cindy is pigeonholed and bewildered, rather than fulfilled, by her role as wife and mother; her determination to take control of her own life is powerful to watch.
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Director Kelly Reichardt
Two years after Wendy and Lucy, Williams reteamed with Reichardt to turn the western on its head. In what is traditionally an intensely masculine genre, the director tells the story of westward expansion through the experiences of a group of settlers navigating the wilds of the Oregon trail and, in particular, the womenfolk. Like the others, Williams’ Emily may be constrained by the social customs of the day, but she is nevertheless a shrewd and intelligent woman who takes quiet control of the situation after their guide gets them hopelessly lost. She is, in fact, the true keeper of the entire group’s fate; no small task under such uncharted skies.
Take This Waltz (2011)
Director Sarah Polley
Women caught up in the throes of an affair are, cinematically speaking, usually painted as scarlet women or naive ingenues. In Sarah Polley’s tumultuous drama, Williams is neither. Returning to territory previously explored in Blue Valentine, she plays the unhappily married Margot with such sensitivity that her attraction to enigmatic artist neighbour Daniel (Luke Kirby) is utterly sympathetic, even if husband Lou (Seth Rogen) is a schlub at worst. Working from an incredible screenplay by Polley, Williams turns this duplicitous narrative into a keen-eyed, entirely modern exploration of female sexuality and desire.
My Week with Marilyn (2011)
Director Simon Curtis
While many actresses have portrayed the iconic Marilyn Monroe on screen – Susan Griffiths, Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino among them – it’s hard to imagine one more well suited to the role than Williams. In Simon Curtis’s insightful snapshot of an incredible life, which focuses on Monroe’s relationship with Laurence Olivier during the production of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), she captures the bombshell beauty, independent spirit and girl-next-door vulnerability that made Monroe such a universally beloved star.
Suite Française (2014)
Director Saul Dibb
Forbidden love and the challenges of relationships have been recurring motifs throughout Williams’ career, and there have perhaps never been higher stakes than in Saul Dibb’s exquisite human drama. She is Lucile Angellier, a young woman in occupied France during the Second World War, who falls for Matthias Schoenaerts’ billeted German soldier. As the confusion of initial attraction gives way to passionate love, Williams charts the complex emotional journey – not just in Lucille’s romantic life but also her loyalty to her absent husband and mother-in-law – with genuine heart, making this an exploration not of history but of humanity.
Certain Women (2016)
Director Kelly Reichardt
In her third collaboration with Kelly Reichardt, Williams is at the centre of an impressive female cast, which also includes Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart, in a story that again celebrates the sharp edges and imperfections of the female experience. Like her fellow characters, Williams’ Gina is no flashy genteel heroine but a regular Montana woman attempting to buy some land. As Gina comes up against the outdated sexism of an elderly man with whom she’s trying to do business, Williams embodies a subtle, palpable rage that radiates from the screen.