When Channel 4 asked viewers to vote for their favourite British Actresses of all time back in 2004, the results were hardly surprising. The list contained more national treasures than the British Museum. Dame Judi Dench clocked in at number one, Kate Winslet came second, while Emma Thompson, Maggie Smith and Julie Walters all followed. With the exception of Keira Knightley, who had sneaked in at number nine on the strength of Pirates of the Caribbean, those that came further down the list were also largely from the shelf marked "stalwart". Helen Mirren, Brenda Blethyn, Vanessa Redgrave... you name her, she was there.
If this chart brought anything to light, it was this: where were the next generation of British actresses? While the likes of Rachel Weisz, Kate Beckinsale and Catherine Zeta-Jones had all long since departed to forge themselves lives and careers in Hollywood, nobody on that list, Knightley aside, particularly provided hope that a new batch of home-grown female talent was on the way. Fast-forward five years, however, and it's a very different story. Right now, the British film industry is witnessing a rebirth when it comes to its female acting contingent. We're not just talking about this year's graduates from Rada here, but a generation of actresses who all look as if they'll be on our screens for a long time to come.
Consider it like the female equivalent of the Primrose Hill mob from around 15 years ago, when the likes of Ewan McGregor, Jude Law, Jonny Lee Miller and Sean Pertwee first burst on to our screens (and, in the case of two of these four, then slunk off them again). While once upon a time it was McGregor and Law who made it to Hollywood, now we have the likes of Gemma Arterton. Already known for her brief-but-memorable role as a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, the 23-year-old from Gravesend will next be seen in two of the biggest films of 2010, the video-game adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and a remake of the cult favourite Clash of the Titans.
With Prince of Persia being backed by the producer Jerry Bruckheimer, inevitable comparisons are being made between Arterton and Knightley, whose breakthrough came in Pirates of the Caribbean courtesy of the very same mogul. "It's always funny," says Arterton. "Especially with girls, people always want to them in little brackets, which they belong in. I don't think I belong in the same bracket as Keira Knightley. I'm completely different, and from a very different background, and even have different accents. It's just because of Jerry Bruckheimer and it's a period film... it's an obvious thing to say. I don't mind. I'm confident in my own ability to not worry about being compared to people."
Even so, there's no discounting the Keira factor. Yes, Winslet finally found a longed-for acceptance by her peers when she won her Oscar, at the sixth time of asking, for The Reader this year. But it's the 24-year-old Knightley, largely thanks to the mega-success of the Pirates franchise, that is the bigger draw right now. Primarily, she is able to tap into the 18-to-24 market – traditionally the demographic that spends most money at the cinema. And she's able to do that far more than, say, Emma Watson, who has yet to prove herself outside the Harry Potter franchise. Knightley, meanwhile, has demonstrated a modicum of versatility – everything from psychological thrillers (The Jacket) to action-adventures (Domino), outside of the typical corset films she cut her teeth on.
Indeed, it might just be the success of Knightley in Hollywood that has allowed some of these other new starlets to come through. Take Carey Mulligan, who, with her clipped vowels and private education, is far more likely to be Knightley's natural successor than Arterton ever will be. Her first role, as Kitty Bennet in Joe Wright's 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice, put her alongside Knightley, who is now "one of my best friends", Mulligan says. Wright remembers her first audition: "She was this 18-year-old who was working in a pub and had dreams of being an actor. She came in, and she was really good in the casting session, so we gave her the job. She used to walk on to every set and start crying – 'It's so beautiful!' Now it looks like she's got this Hollywood film career."
She's still only 24, but there can be no disputing that this is Mulligan's moment – from being chosen as the British representative at the Shooting Stars strand at this year's Berlin Film Festival to starring opposite Johnny Depp as a peroxide-blonde prostitute in Michael Mann's recent John Dillinger biopic Public Enemies. To come is Brothers, a Hollywood remake of the Danish director Susanne Bier's harrowing 2004 film in which her co-stars include Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire, and family drama The Greatest, alongside Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon. Her breakout role, meanwhile, is set for release in the autumn: she plays Jenny, a schoolgirl entwined with an older man, in An Education, based on the British journalist Lynn Barber's own youthful memoirs.
Then comes a reunion with Knightley in Never Let Me Go, an adaptation of the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro that's set to be a key release in the evolution of this new generation of British actresses. Directed by Mark Romanek, who made the excellent obsessive thriller One Hour Photo with Robin Williams, the film is a 1980s-set drama about three friends who reunite years after their days at an English private school. The film pairs Knightley and Mulligan with both Sally Hawkins and Andrea Riseborough, who previously both worked together (albeit briefly) on Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, the film that broke Hawkins when she won the Best Actress at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival and garnered a Golden Globe nomination to boot.
Riseborough, whose latest film, the British-Asian comedy Mad, Sad & Bad, opens next week, denies it felt as if the cast of Never Let Me Go were the cream of British stars-in-the-making. "You don't think in those terms," she says. "But what you do think is, 'Wow, I'm getting to make this with all of my friends.' And so it was lovely. It was such a rare opportunity, that we were all able to work together in that way. So often, you are the 'young thing' in something. Or the lone female." In this case, the roles are reversed, as Andrew Garfield, the rising British star of the Robert Redford film Lions for Lambs, is the one finding himself outnumbered.
Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trialSign up
Riseborough, a 27-year-old from Newcastle upon Tyne, has set herself out as one to watch across all three mediums. Winning, in 2007, the Ian Charleson Award for her performances on stage as Isabella in Measure for Measure and as the title character in Miss Julie, this year she was nominated for a Bafta TV Award for playing the Iron Lady in Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley. If that wasn't enough, she starred in Love You More, Sam Taylor Wood's short film, scripted by Patrick Marber, in which she played a punk discovering love and the Buzzcocks for the first time. Almost unrecognisable from role to role – "One of the most fulfilling parts of the job," she says – she's a true chameleon.
It's certainly not difficult to see why she and Hawkins have become friends. Both are graduates of the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts (Hawkins in 1998; Riseborough in 2005) and the Rada bond remains strong. "It's almost like a big family – 'Oh, you're one of us'," says Hawkins. "Mike Leigh has the same effect, that family thing." Raised in Dulwich, the daughter of the children's authors/illustrators Jacqui and Colin Hawkins, the actress experienced her first doses of Leigh appearing in both All or Nothing and Vera Drake. But it was as Poppy, the eternal optimist in Happy-Go-Lucky, that Hawkins graduated to the next league.
Of course, if one thing hasn't really changed, it's that all these British stars-of-tomorrow are still very, well, British: modest, self-deprecating and – thankfully, perhaps – unfamiliar with the sense of entitlement that most Hollywood stars seem to possess. "I still think, 'Am I really here?'" says Hawkins. "I still think somebody is going to tap me on the shoulder and go, 'Your time is up! Can you go? Give us the Prada dress back and sod off!'" Likewise, Mulligan experienced "anxiety dreams" before the Sundance premiere of An Education. "I dreamt that Geoff Gilmore, the [former] director of Sundance put me in a car and made me leave for being disappointing," she says. "In Park City, in the main high street, he gets this black car and he's like, 'Get in. You've got to go. Everyone thought it was going to be really good!'"
There seems little chance of that, with Mulligan, Hawkins, Riseborough and company all oozing talent. As it happens, the latter two are currently filming a third project together. Telling the true story of a 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham car plant, the provocatively titled comedy We Want Sex shows what happened when a group of female workers walked out in protest against sexual discrimination. With Nigel Cole, who made Calendar Girls, directing, the obvious hope is for a similar crossover hit. Even if it does sound a little like Carry On At Your Convenience, the heartening thing is that much like Never Let Me Go, it's another female-oriented story that contains ample roles for these new British female stars to get their teeth into.
The film also features Jaime Winstone, the 24-year-old daughter of the actor Ray, who has become a tabloid favourite for dating Lily Allen's brother Alfie. Different to the aforementioned Rada-educated girls, not least because she's had to deal with being in the not inconsiderable shadow of her father, Winstone is arguably the most provocative of all these young actresses. Whether it's the shocking realism of her performance as your worst urban nightmare in Kidulthood, the full-on sexual exploits of last year's thriller Donkey Punch or her in-your-face turn as a Tracey Emin-like artist in the forthcoming art-scene satire Boogie Woogie, Winstone is an actress who lives on her wits.
While Winstone offers British working-class girls the sort of inspiration her father did when he starred in Scum, the same can be said for Jodie Whittaker. The Huddersfield-born lass seemed to come from nowhere to play Peter O'Toole's muse in Venus, and went on to star with Arterton in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Like the bulk of these women, she comes across as a loyal supporter of home-grown projects. Her forthcoming films include The Kid, the new film from the British actor Nick Moran, and the gangster comedy Perrier's Bounty. "As an actor, especially being English," she says, "you can't help but want to be part of the British film industry and what that means."
There are others, such as Michelle Ryan, who escaped the soap bubble of EastEnders to win the lead in the sadly short-lived US reworking of Bionic Woman. Or Rebecca Hall, daughter to the theatre director Sir Peter, who – after a distinguished time treading the boards – rose to prominence this year in both Frost/Nixon and Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. Then there are Talulah Riley and Tamsin Egerton, who starred with Arterton and Whittaker in St. Trinians and now share a flat together – all women who've proved that you no longer have to ply your trade wearing a petticoat and a bonnet.
Wright admits he's seen this trend for new British female acting talent developing for some time. "It's really exciting," he says, before sounding a note of caution. "I'm a little bit concerned. I want to know where the boys are. It worries me. That does worry me. The boys that are going to be proper men. You look at previous generations – Richard Harris, Richard Burton and Oliver Reed, these proper masculine types. So I hope some of those come through." It's a fair point – though for the moment, at least, this proliferation of British actresses is what should be celebrated. Indeed, the only person who might not celebrate is Winslet. While she may remain the current queen of British actresses, it seems she might have to fight for the right to keep that particular title.
Key CV: 'The Long Walk to Finchley', 'Love You More', 'The Devil's Whore'
Why We Like Her: This Geordie girl has guts. From working with Mike Leigh for months for little more than a cameo in 'Happy-Go-Lucky' to captivating us as Margaret Thatcher, she's evidently willing to take on the biggest challenges. She can change her appearance at will, as demonstrated in her latest film, 'Mad, Sad & Bad', where she plays an artist stuck in a dwindling relationship, and she shows no fear about moving between television, film and theatre.
Next up: 'Mad, Sad & Bad'
Key CV: 'St. Trinians', 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles', 'Quantum of Solace'
Why We Like Her: There's something down-to-earth about Arterton that's very appealing to Hollywood. Compare her to previous exports, like the oh-so-wooden Kate Beckinsale, and you can already see why studios are now wooing her. She's able to play saucy, tragic and timid in the blink of an eye, and next summer will test her range further. But if Arterton keeps her feet planted on terra firma, she should have Hollywood kneeling before them for a good while yet.
Next up: 'Clash of the Titans'
Key CV: 'Pride & Prejudice', 'St. Trinians', 'The Boat That Rocked'
Why We Like Her: As the girl who comes aboard the pirate-radio boat in Richard Curtis's comedy and causes havoc, Riley was a delight – she has an effervescent streak to her that should see her go far. She also happens to be engaged to Elon Musk, the multi-millionaire co-founder of PayPal. As one interviewer remarked recently, "So Talulah, where did it all go wrong?"
Next up: 'St. Trinian's: The Legend of Fritton's Gold'
Key CV: 'Layer Cake', 'Cassandra's Dream', 'Happy-Go-Lucky'
Why We Like Her: Surviving the Mike Leigh School of Acting three times is no picnic. Hawkins has risen through the ranks in the way many previous Leigh alumni have, turning in smaller performances, and she took the lead in 'Happy-Go-Lucky' with a dignity and humanity that many actors rarely achieve. Since then, she's taken on a wide range of roles to prove she's capable of working outside his direction. May be too quirky for Hollywood – but perhaps that's part of her charm.
Next up: 'Never Let Me Go'
Key CV: 'Bullet Boy', 'Kidulthood', 'Donkey Punch'
Why We Like Her: At heart an honest, instinctive actress, she's a chip off the old block. Just as Ray Winstone has started working with the likes of Scorsese and Spielberg, so his daughter has proved she's capable of following in his footsteps. Blessed with an innate sense of choosing projects that appeal to her youth following – take zombie 'Big Brother'-set thriller 'Dead Set', for example – she is also not afraid of branching out. Though don't expect her in period dress anytime soon.
Next up: 'Boogie Woogie'
Key CV: 'Driving Lessons', 'Keeping Mum', 'St. Trinians'
Why We Like Her: Going topless in 'Keeping Mum' was one way to get noticed – and that certainly caused a scandal – but there's far more to Egerton than her body. Or indeed her face, given that most internet fans seem to swoon over her features. But with a natural gift for comedy, this Hampshire-born lass can raise a smile. It'll be good to see her in darker fare in the future, though, such as last year's thriller 'Knife Edge'.
Next up: 'Huge'
Key CV: 'Pride & Prejudice', 'Bleak House', 'Public Enemies'
Why We Like Her: Talk about taking it all in your stride. Arguably one of the hottest actresses you've yet to hear of, Mulligan has a series of Hollywood films already under her belt – and there's talk of her joining the cast of Oliver Stone's 'Wall Street' sequel, 'Money Never Sleeps'. Why? Because she's very good: her performance in 'An Education' is beautifully empathetic. Come in, Keira, your time is up.
Next up: 'An Education'
Key CV: 'Venus', 'Good', 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles'
Why We Like Her: Not many people could give Peter O'Toole a run for his money but Whittaker was quite simply stunning in 'Venus'. Much like Winstone, she is an honest, in-your-face actress – but there is also something quite beautiful about her and her work, as that film showed. Since then, she's proved she's no one-trick pony – and choices such as 'Good', a film about the rise of national socialism in Germany with Viggo Mortensen, show she has a courageous streak.
Next up: 'Perrier's Bounty'
Key CV: 'The Prestige', 'Frost/Nixon', 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona'
Why We Like Her: Classy, sophisticated, innocent, sexy – Hall can literally do it all, and that was just in the Woody Allen film. Perhaps what's most impressive, though, is that she has no desire to simply decamp to Hollywood, despite her success in 'Frost/Nixon'. Being her father's (Peter Hall) daughter, she is currently in Sam Mendes' double-bill of 'The Cherry Orchard' and 'The Winter's Tale', displaying a willingness to stretch herself on stage that keeps her razor-sharp as an actress.
Next up: 'Dorian Gray'
Key CV: 'EastEnders', 'I Want Candy', 'Bionic Woman'
Why We Like Her: Bursting out of that soap is no mean feat – and going from playing Albert Square's Zoe Slater to taking the lead in the reboot of 'Bionic Woman' was a leap even Jaime Sommers might've found tough. The athletic Ryan did it with grace and style, though it was unfortunate that the show was cancelled after one season. But she's known to Hollywood, boding well for a career that should mean she never has to darken the Queen Vic's doors again.
Next up: 'Huge'
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies