The 25 Greatest British Directors of All Time

17. Lynne Ramsay (1969 – present)Another relatively young face of British cinema, Lynne Ramsay is one of the most dynamic and original directors working today, making beautiful films vastly different from most of her contemporaries. After making several successful short films, Ramsay made her first feature film Ratcatcher.

Set in Ramsay’s native Scotland during a time of reconstruction, the film follows a young boy James, who lives in a rundown, rat infested project in Glasgow. Early in the movie, his best friend drowns and he blames himself. This bleak narrative, showing the societal problems of Scotland gained Ramsay international acclaim for her fluid, oddly beautiful storytelling.

Ramsay has only made two other films since Ratcatcher. The first was Morvern Callar, based on Alan Warner’s book of the same name, about a young girl who is spurred into a journey of awakening after her boyfriend commits suicide. The other film is We Need to Talk About Kevin, starring Tilda Swinton.

This controversial film examines the difficult topic of school shootings from the point of view of the shooter’s mother. Ramsay is not the most mainstream director, partially because her material is often quite challenging to cope with, but she is a fresh and talented voice whose films are always interesting.


16. Basil Dearden (1911 – 1971)

Basil Dearden was a very talented and prolific director of British cinema, creating classics in all genres, from horror to comedy. Throughout his long career in the film industry Dearden was involved with big studios and on projects with smaller, independent groups. He was an efficient director whose large body of work was not always consistent, but his cool vision always came through and his greatest films were among the best of their era.

Dearden got his first big break as a director with Ealing Studios and worked on many of their iconic films. These movies included the influential horror anthology Dead of Night, the war drama The Captive Heart and the police thriller The Blue Lamp.

After Ealing, Dearden had more freedom in his projects and some of his most daring and involved projects could finally come to fruition. One of his greatest films of this period was the raw heist film The League of Gentlemen starring RIchard Attenborough, Jack Hawkins and Roger Livesey.

Some of the other notable films of this period in his career including more controversial pictures such as Sapphire and Victim which address problems of racism and homosexuality respectively. Dearden may never have reached the fame and fortune of some of his more iconic peers, his long and busy career in the industry make him indispensable to British cinema.


15. Ken Loach (1936 – present)

Another veteran of the British film industry, Ken Loach has been working in the film industry since the 1960s and is still active today. Loach got his start directing TV episodes on the Wednesday Play series. His work on this program was in the vein of the Italian Neo-realist genre and reflected Loach’s socially centered political concerns.

He soon ventured into the feature film business with his first picture Poor Cow. His next project was Kes, a coming of age story that garnered Loach critical acclaim and has since gone down as one of the quintessential films of British film.

Since then, Loach has made dozens of projects for film and television, yielding mixed results but always with a focus on the sociopolitical landscape of the United Kingdom and all touched by Loach’s unique style. Some notable films of his throughout his career include Riff-Raff, Raining Stones and Land and Freedom.

After Kes, his next most notable film came almost fifty years later with The Wind that Shakes the Barley. This Palme d’Or winner follows two brothers who join the Irish Republican Army during the conflicts with England in the early pat of the 20th century.


14. Guy Ritchie (1968 – present)

One of the most explosive voices in modern British cinema, Guy Ritchie has been thrilling audiences worldwide for decades. He may have become most famous for his rocky relationship and divorce from pop superstar Madonna, but he was also very significant cinematically for giving a rebirth to the British gangster genre.

His first film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, was the first taste of the director’s distinctive style and cool atmosphere. As well as the entertaining plot, the film is also notable for introducing the acting talents of Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones.

He followed this great success with a string of similarly cool and creative gangster films with big name actors: Snatch, featuring Brad Pitt, Revolver, with Ray Liotta and Rocknrolla which featured the then emerging talents of Gerard Butler, Idris Elba and Tom Hardy. Then he moved over to the American film industry and directed the Robert Downey Jr. vehicle Sherlock Holmes bringing his dynamic visuals to match Downey’s witty presence.

His most recent project was a film adaptation of the television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and, in the works, is a King Arthur film. While some criticize Ritchie’s focus on style and flash over content, his films are consistently entertaining and his unique vision has heavily influenced the appearance of many modern action movies.


13. Steve McQueen (1969 – present)

Sharing a name with one of Hollywood’s immortal stars is a surefire way to never make a name of your own, but somehow this bold British filmmaker has overcome those odds. Steve McQueen has accomplished this not through a prolific career, for the director has only made three films, but by putting extreme detail and focus into each project he works on.

His first feature film was the critically acclaimed independent drama Hunger. The film, which is about the Irish hunger strike in the 1980s, stars McQueen’s frequent star, and then unknown, Michael Fassbender. It is notable for its bold, unflinching viewpoint and its long, meditative takes.

McQueen followed up Hunger with the equally acclaimed drama Shame, which featured Fassbender again in one of his most riveting roles as a sex-addicted businessman. This controversial subject matter, and McQueen’s graphic depiction of it, understandably alienated many viewers and some critics but the film’s power is inarguable.

His most recent film, 12 Years a Slave, based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup is his most successful film so far, winning his Best Director at the Academy Awards, making him the first black filmmaker to do so, and earning him a large audience internationally. Now, McQueen is working a couple of television projects with HBO and BBC, reportedly.


12. Anthony Asquith (1927 – 1964)

A classic British filmmaker, born into nobility but pursued film to escape his class, Anthony Asquith helped define British cinema in its early silent days and throughout the war. The focus of his films was typically on the upper class and his stories were often taken from plays.

In fact, he had a close relationship with the playwright Terence Rattigan, who adapted his plays The Browning Version and The Winslow Boy for Asquith’s film versions. The calculated and contained nature of Asquith’s style, however, was not as exciting as the films of many of his peers, making him often overlooked.

His first big directing success was Pygmalion, an adaptation of the play by George Bernard Shaw, which was a popular success and was even written for the screen by the famous playwright who, up to this point, had been critical of his plays as films. Shortly following this, World War II broke out and Asquith became an important voice in the war film industry, creating exciting films with his frequent star Michael Redgrave such as The Way to the Stars.

It was with Redgrave that Asquith really became a master of his craft and after the war their collaboration led to two of the greatest British films of the era: a film of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, and the Rattigan penned film The Browning Version, in which Redgrave gives a career best performance.


11. Ken Russell (1927 – 2011)

Arguably the most controversial British director ever, Ken Russell’s unique, brazen style and content made him one of the most talked about director’s of his generation. Russell started out making documentaries and biopics for art television programs like Omnibus in which most of his projects focused on the lives of composers or artists.

He also carried this fascination with artists into his more mainstream feature films like Mahler, the flamboyant Lisztomania and The Music Lovers, about Tchaikovsky. As with most of his work, however, the brilliance in these films is not in the story of the films but in the completely original way Russell tells them.

Besides artists, Russell’s other main focus was on sex and his graphic depiction of the subject matter was extremely ahead of its time. His adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s already controversial novel Women in Love ruffled many viewer’s feathers, and he only got more unconventional from there.

Some of his biggest films throughout his lengthy career include Tommy, a rock opera based on an album by The Who, Altered States, a psychedelic sci-fi film and, his masterpiece and his most widely banned film, The Devils, which explored sexuality involving depraved nuns. Although his filmography is uneven, with many interesting films that didn’t pan out, Russell held a very important place in film history, adding a unique avant-garde perspective to cinema.


10. Ridley Scott (1937 – present)

One of the most successful British directors in film history, Ridley Scott has been directing innovative blockbuster films for decades. Unlike many of his peers, Scott did not focus on modern British life as a focus but typically had much larger scopes for his projects.

Because of this vision, after his first couple hits, he has spent much of his career in Hollywood instead of Britain. Scott’s first film was a period piece The Duelists which earned him critical acclaim but not much fame. His next picture, Alien, was a much different story, showing the director’s brilliant style and vision. The film has since become a landmark piece in the science fiction genre and showed the creative potential of Scott.

After Alien, Scott was in high demand and continued to pursue science fiction films, briefly working on a adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and then settling on his cyberpunk masterpiece Blade Runner, a film initially overlooked by audiences but has since become regarded as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time.

Scott’s career reached a peak at about this time, with his popular “1984”-esque Apple commercial, but has continued to work successfully. The latter half of his career is significantly less consistent than his early period with many underwhelming films with lost potential. Many of these projects also suffered due to studio meddling. Still, he managed to create some later films that matched the monumental success of his early works including The Martian and the Best Picture winning film Gladiator.


9. Tony Richardson (1928 – 1991)

Tony Richardson was a leading voice in the British New Wave film movement. Starting out directing adaptations of plays, Richardson found his directorial stride with the influential realist film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a coming of age story showing the hard conditions of modern England and the many societal problems of the time.

Richardson’s next film, Tom Jones, an adaptation of the classic British novel, not only continued to show his range as a director but earned him international recognition and accolades at the Academy Awards.

Unfortunately, Richardson never again reached that level of acclaim for his later works, but he continued to make films for the rest of his life and although they are not remembered as often, some are still quite good and worth tracking down. Mademoiselle was a dark psychological drama shot in a noir style.

Laughter in the Dark was an admirable effort to adapt the novel of the same name by Vladimir Nabokov. His final film, Blue Sky, released three years after Richardson’s death, starred Jessica Lange in an Oscar winning role as a mentally ill housewife with marital struggles. Although at the end of his career, Richardson’s renown was not what it used to be, his important role in the evolution of British cinema will ensure that he is always remembered.