Maggie Smith's 20 best films – ranked!

Ahead of Smith’s withering return in the Downton Abbey movie, we rate her greatest big screen performances so far, from spinsterish aunt to voracious seducer, Harry Potter’s teacher to Muriel Spark’s haughtiest heroine

Watch the trailer for the forthcoming Downton Abbey film.

20. Sister Act (1992)

Maggie Smith plays the authoritarian Mother Superior in this nuntastic box-office smash with a hint of Some Like It Hot, featuring Whoopi Goldberg as the lounge singer forced to go into a witness protection and join a convent after witnessing a mob slaying. There is some poignancy and dramatic edge to Smith’s disapproving mien.

19. The Last September (1999)

Before Downton and Gosford Park, there was this “country house” role for Maggie Smith, with John Banville’s adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen’s novel set in 1920s Ireland as the Anglo-Irish ascendancy becomes the descendancy. With subtle melancholy and restraint, Smith plays Lady Naylor, presiding over an estate in County Cork that feels increasingly embattled as Ireland prepares to break free of the British.

Smith with Judi Dench in A Room With A View.
Smith with Judi Dench in A Room With A View. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

18. A Room With a View (1985)

Smith plays Charlotte Bartlett in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation of EM Forster’s novel, directed by James Ivory. It is a small, but rather potent part as the wary and disapproving chaperone to her yearning younger cousin Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), as they tour primly around Italy, fetching up in Florence. Charlotte is annoyed that their rooms do not have a “view” of the Arno, and her character epitomises the ironic inability to see the passionate possibilities laid out before her.

17. Young Cassidy (1965)

Based on the life of the great dramatist Sean O’Casey, this movie has the Australian star Rod Taylor as the man himself and Smith as the demure librarian who falls for him, inspires his creative and theatrical career and then selflessly lets him fly free of her. A conventional romantic turn.

16. Ladies in Lavender (2004)

Very often, Smith finds herself in Werther’s Original movies in which she is condescendingly required to be a feisty oldster. This period drama is a cut above. Judi Dench and Smith play two sisters living on the Cornish coast in the 1930s who take in a mysterious Polish stranger. His handsome brooding looks unlock dormant emotions in them both. A strong, yet nuanced performance from Smith.

15. Quartet (1981)

A complex, unrelatable role for Smith in Jhabvala’s cool, measured adaptation of the Jean Rhys novel, directed by Ivory. She plays Lois, a painter in 1920s Paris, married to a handsome art dealer (Alan Bates), a philanderer who invites a beautiful penniless young woman (Isabelle Adjani) to stay with them – for the purposes of seducing her. Lois has to become resentfully complicit in this dysfunctional non-love triangle.

Sexually voracious … Smith angles for a night of passion with a vicar (Michael Palin) in The Missionary.
Sexually voracious … Smith angles for a night of passion with a vicar (Michael Palin) in The Missionary. Photograph: Allstar/Handmade Films

14. The Missionary (1982)

An eccentric comedy from George Harrison’s Handmade Films is the first of two pairings for Smith and the film’s screenwriter-star Michael Palin. He is the unworldly clergyman tasked with setting up a mission for “fallen women” in Edwardian London’s East End. Smith is the sexually voracious Lady Isabel Ames, to whose wealthy husband the vicar must apply for charitable funding. Lady Isabel effectively promises to open her husband’s chequebook in return for a night of passion with the handsome vicar.

13. Richard III (1995)

A rare but special Shakespeare on screen for Smith, who plays the hated hunchback king’s mother, the Duchess of York, opposite Ian McKellen’s Richard in Richard Loncraine’s Mosleyite-fascist staging. In some ways, it is another grande dame outing, but Smith brings to it a fierce energy and alienated anger – with a style perhaps borrowed from Queen Mary of Teck.

12. Travels With My Aunt (1972)

This was the film, adapted from Graham Greene and directed by George Cukor, in which Smith first established her Wilde-Wodehousian “aunt” persona: at just 38 years old, she is playing a formidable old lady of around twice that age. It is a wacky adventure mystery in which Alec McCowen plays a bewildered chap who finds himself finagled by his mysterious Aunt Augusta (Smith) into her plan to rescue her former lover from a kidnap plot. A broad comic performance.

Wronged love … as Desdemona in Othello.
Wronged love … as Desdemona in Othello. Photograph: Cinetext Bildarchiv/Allstar/Warner Bros

11. Othello (1965)

Smith held her own against one of the biggest alpha-gorillas of stage or screen, Laurence Olivier. In that distant age, he played Shakespeare’s Othello in blackface and with a rolling, booming bass voice, while Smith played his wronged love, Desdemona, with mellifluous dignity and grace.

10. Washington Square (1997)

Smith gives one of her blue-chip “aunt” performances in this excellent, underrated and under-remembered Henry James adaptation, directed by Agnieszka Holland. She is the faintly daffy Aunt Lavinia, who derives a weirdly vicarious excitement from her niece’s gentleman caller, and who – as we might say now – lives for the drama.

9. The VIPs (1963)

A little gem of a turn from Smith (paired Rod Taylor) in this ensemble movie, scripted by Terence Rattigan, directed by Anthony Asquith and set in the VIP lounge of an airport. She is the mousy-yet-devoted Miss Mead, secretly in love with her employer, troubled businessman Les Mangrum, and willing to take risks to help him out of a jam.

Smith puts a witty spin on her school marmish character in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Smith puts a witty spin on her schoolmarmish character in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

8. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

Smith gave a witty and good-natured spin on her schoolmarmish persona with this commanding performance as the teacher Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter franchise – and it was in the first film that she was most conspicuous. She is Hogwarts’ deputy headmistress (later to be promoted), Gryffindor house head, transfiguration professor, quidditch enthusiast and member of the Order of the Phoenix, who is to play a decisive role in Harry’s final battle with the forces of darkness. Potter is what lasered Smith into the minds of children all over the world.

7. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987)

This adaptation of the Brian Moore novel is a delicately detailed, beautifully acted drama in which Smith delivers a star performance. She is the tragic spinster in 1950s Dublin who imagines that the attentions being paid to her by Bob Hoskins’s brash businessman mean that she is on the verge of a great romance. Perhaps it doesn’t have the lightness and waspish asperity that we prize in a Smith performance, but this is fine work.

In charismatic form as the wife of a chiropodist (Michael Palin) in A Private Function.
In charismatic form as the wife of a chiropodist (Michael Palin) in A Private Function. Photograph: Allstar/Handmade Films

6. A Private Function (1984)

There is a certain type of online debate among Smith fans as to which is the latest film in which she is conventionally fanciable. This topic – vulgar and irrelevant as it is – has found a consensus with A Private Function, written by Alan Bennett with Smith on fiercely charismatic form as Joyce, the demanding wife of shy, retiring chiropodist Gilbert, played by Palin. In the postwar era of rationing, they abduct a pig being secretly kept by grand townsfolk for a special civic feast to celebrate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. “Mrs Rhoades’s ingrowing toenail has turned the corner,” says Gilbert over supper. “Please Gilbert,” says Smith acidly, “please don’t bring feet to the table.”

5. Nothing Like a Dame (2018)

Smith gave one of her greatest late-period performances as herself in this glorious documentary: a kind of alpha-league “dame-off” with Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins. These great stars sit round a table and discuss life, love, the stage, the screen, the way the profession has developed for women over the years – and the appalling men they have had to deal with. Smith almost upstages everyone with the revelation that her delivery is modelled on Kenneth Williams.

4. California Suite (1978)

One of Smith’s funniest, most self-aware performances – which won her a best supporting actress Oscar – came in this portmanteau all-star movie, adapted by Neil Simon from his Broadway stage play. She is Diana, a British actress returning from a catastrophic awards ceremony, desolate about her career and her “lavender” marriage to Sidney, a closeted gay man played by Michael Caine: “I’ve aged Sidney. I’m getting lines in my face. I look like a brand-new steel-belted radial tyre.”

Formidable … Smith as Constance Trentham in Gosford Park.
Formidable … Smith as Constance Trentham in Gosford Park. Photograph: Allstar/Capitol Films

3. Gosford Park (2001)

This was the film that inspired the Downton Abbey TV spinoff and gave Smith the prototype for the smallscreen role that helped make her famous all over the world. In this country-house mystery, written by Julian Fellowes and directed by Robert Altman, she is the formidable Countess of Trentham, a visitor to the great house. (In Downton, she has more or less the same persona, but promoted to quasi-chatelaine status as the Dowager Countess of Grantham.) Smith’s character delivers weapons-grade putdowns and overwhelming patrician zingers.

2. The Lady in the Van (2015)

A colossal performance from Smith as Miss Shepherd, the elderly homeless lady who chivvied Alan Bennett into letting her live in a van parked outside his house in London. She deploys the classic piercing stare of disapproval, the pinched lips and bird-like head movements as Miss Shepherd assesses the deeply unsatisfactory nature of everything around her.

Haughty and imperious in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Haughty and imperious in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy Stock Photo

1. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

This one really is the crème de la crème of Smith films. Give this film to a cinemagoer at an impressionable age, or any age, and he or she is Dame Maggie’s for life. It is her classic role, which she immortalised at the age of 35 and which won her the best actress Oscar: imperious, haughty, vulnerable, unworldly, romantic, intellectual and with a distinctive hold over men. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (the scansion of the title usually means the “Prime” and “Miss” are over emphasised; really, the last three words should be hit equally hard) is adapted by Jay Presson Allen from her own stage-play version of the Muriel Spark novel. It is the story of a charismatic Edinburgh schoolmistress (“schoolteacher” really won’t do here) with unorthodox – and indeed worrying – views and a dominating personality. Successive generations have felt as if they were Brodie’s pupils, falling under her spell.


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