The 25 Greatest British Directors of All Time

8. Peter Greenaway (1942 – present)

Rivaling Ken Russell for the strangest British directors of all time, Peter Greenaway is an auteur of distinct style and subject matter. His entire filmography is extremely dense, packed with symbols and elaborate plots. His visual style is modeled after classic paintings, and Greenaway takes care to frame his shots perfectly.

The content of his films is also usually challenging, taking on heavy themes and using often controversial subject matter. Greenaway started out making short films, which show the large ambitions of the director and his eye for detail. His first feature film, The Falls, is infact just a long collection of short films connected by an overarching structure.

In 1980, Greenaway filmed his first great success, The Draughtsman’s Contract, an intricate murder mystery and visual puzzle. The films calculated style and enigmatic plot made it an instant cult favorite and it is remembered as one of Greenaway’s finest. Some of his other, equally complicated films include A Zed and Two Noughts, The Belly of an Architect, Drowning by Numbers and The Baby of Macon.

His most popular and acclaimed film is The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover starring Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon. Recently, Greenaway has focused back to his roots of painters and has made several ambitious, similarly dense projects in that vein, such as Nightwatch about the Rembrandt painting of the same name.


7. Terry Gilliam (1940 – present)

Visionary director Terry Gilliam actually did not grow up in Britain but was born in the state of Minnesota, USA to British parents. He grew up in the United States and went to college in California. In the 1960s, Gilliam did not like the direction that the country was going and decided to move to England where he became a cartoonist. Here he met comedians like John Cleese and Eric Idle and together they started the Monty Python comedy troupe.

Although Gilliam was most famous for making the animations that linked the segments of the sketch comedy, he also contributed to the comedy of the group and co-directed their most famous achievement Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

After the group had begun to part ways, Gilliam started making movies of his own, starting with his so called “Trilogy of Imagination.” The films in this trilogy, Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron of Munchausen, were not connected by specific plots of characters but by the similar theme of escaping ordered society through imagination.

These films were all extremely elaborate with dazzling effects as well as important messages about life. For his next “trilogy” he went back to America and shot The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Not as fantastical as his first trilogy, this more serious group of films deals with the interweaving of real life with surrealism and often features darker themes than his earlier films. Gilliam’s directing career has slowed of late, not reaching the same acclaim he once achieved, but the director is currently back on track to complete his long troubled project based on the novel “Don Quixote.”


6. Carol Reed (1906 – 1969)

Carol Reed is a giant of classic British cinema, starting his career in the 1930s and moving the industry along with his exciting filmic ideas. He was extremely active in this early period, often putting out more than one movie a year and contributing to the war film industry as well.

While many of these films are, at least to Reed’s admission, somewhat forgettable, there are some gems like Night Train to Munich. After the war, however, Reed was able to spend more time on his projects and this is when he started making his masterpieces.

Starting in 1947, Reed had a three year string of production in which he put out his three greatest films, not only marking his most successful period but one of the greatest runs of any director. The first was Odd Man Out, a noir set in Ireland starring James Mason. The next was The Fallen Idol, a brilliant story written by Graham Greene about the disillusionment of a young boy and the hero he looked up to.

The last film in this string is Reed’s most famous picture, The Third Man. Starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, this definitive film noir, based yet again a story by Greene, revolutionized the genre. Although this was Reed’s peak period, he continued making solid films, most notably Oliver! which finally earned him an Academy Award.


5. Mike Leigh (1943 – present)

No British filmmaker has been more successful in capturing the bleakness and realism of modern life in England than Mike Leigh. Part of the reason that his films are so successful in striking a chord with viewers is because of the improvisational acting methods he coaxes out of his performers.

For the first decade of his career, Leigh stayed away from feature films for the most part, directing lots of theater and television programs, notably Meantime, with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. It was not until 1990 that his film career really began to take off with the dreary comedy Life is Sweet.

With Leigh’s next film, Naked, he started to receive critical recognition. This gritty black comedy, starring David Thewlis in an astounding performance, won Leigh the Best Director award at Cannes. A few years later, Leigh’s masterpiece, Secrets & Lies, garnered even more accolades such as the Palme d’Or and cemented the director as a leading voice in modern British cinema.

Leigh’s filmography since his start has been satisfyingly consistent and some of his other great films include Topsy Turvy, about the opera writing team of Gilbert & Sullivan, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky, a surprisingly light hearted gem, and many more.


4. Nicolas Roeg (1928 – present)

Like many of his peers, Roeg set out to change movies, and his unique disordered style of filmmaking did just that, influencing many cinematic innovators today. The distinct visual focus of Roeg’s films can be traced back to his beginning in the industry where he worked as a cameraman and cinematographer for almost two decades before he got around to making his own films.

His first directorial attempt was with the Mick Jagger vehicle Performance which, to the producers dismay, evolved into a dark, controversial psychological drama. Although not a box office smash, it set the stage for Roeg as a bold new voice of British cinema. His next film was Walkabout, which followed a brother and a sister who are left stranded in the outback of Australia and are helped by an Aboriginal boy on his journey of passage.

His next work Don’t Look Now is his most lasting achievement and today is held in high regard for Roeg’s revolutionary editing techniques and brilliantly foreboding atmosphere that he managed to convey. The film, while at the time mostly known for its lengthy, graphic sex scene, is a masterful paranormal thriller and is a key work of British horror.

Some of his other notable works of the period include the science fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring the late David Bowie, and the extremely controversial film Bad Timing, featuring Art Garfunkel. Roeg’s career never reached the same heights after this, although his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches is worth a view, he still puts out a unique project every now and then.


3. Alfred Hitchcock (1899 – 1980)

The master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most important film directors of all time. Like so many of the other great directors on this list, however, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood early in his career and it is from these American films that most of his immense reputation comes from.

Except for a brief period during World War II when Hitchcock worked making British military films, his filmography since 1937 has been American. In 1955, he even switched his citizenship to continue working working in Hollywood, showing where his allegiances laid.

While his landmark film such as Vertigo and Rear Window were not British, he had a very productive and important career in England starting all the way back with silent films. Hitchcock started in the film industry as a title card designer for a studio and evolved into many different roles, such as production designer and screenwriter.

In 1925, he directed his first film The Pleasure Garden which failed to gain attention. Two years later, however, he came back with the film The Lodger, a movie about a serial killer which became extremely popular and quickly made Hitchcock famous.

From this success, he bridged the gap into sound films and made three great classic before leaving for America: The Man Who Knew Much, which he later remade with Jimmy Stewart, The 39 Steps, a terrific, twisting spy film, and The Lady Vanishes, a thriller that became an international hit. Although most of Hitchcock’s legacy will reside in his American films, his contributions to the budding world of British cinema were among the most important of their time.


2. David Lean (1908 – 1983)

No other director’s name is as synonymous with British cinema as the great David Lean’s. From his sweeping epics to his closer, powerful works, Lean gave British cinema an international face for decades and creating some of the most visually awe inspiring films to ever grace the screen.

He got his start in the industry as an editor, working on the films of many other directors on this list, and got his first filmmaking break with the war film In Which We Serve, where he co-directed with the film’s writer Noel Coward.

Following this success, he teamed up with Coward for three more films, taking the sole director title for This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit and the timeless love story A Brief Encounter. Other notable films of his early period include his two masterful Dickens adaptations, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, as well as the comedy film Hobson’s Choice starring Charles Laughton.

Soon after this, Lean started on a larger scope of film, setting his sights internationally with sprawling projects. The drawback of this was that each film took much longer to come to fruition and from 1957 to the end of his career in 1984, Lean only made five films.

The first of these was the war epic The Bridge on the River Kwai, a British-American film starring Alec Guinness and William Holden about prisoners of war building a supply bridge for the Japanese and the soldiers sent to destroy it.

This was followed by an even larger production, Lawrence of Arabia, about the exploits of British diplomat T.E. Lawrence and his role in the Arab Revolt. The film was an international phenomenon at its release and continues to amaze audiences, often in the conversation for the best films of all time. His last three films, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and Passage to India were of similar size and scope, and while they lack some of the humanity present in his earlier works, their grandeur is still very impressive.


1. Michael Powell (1905 – 1980)

Michael Powell tops this list, not only for his outstanding filmography, but for his capturing of British culture, his innovative methods of filmmaking and his bravery in cinematic history, crossing boundaries and creating films very far ahead of their time. While many of films were quite successful upon their release, their reputation continues to grow greatly and they are rightfully taking their place in history as some of the most inventive and moving films of their time.

Like Carol Reed, Powell got his start pounding out quick movies for early production companies, directing 23 films between 1931 and 1936. When he was hired as a director on the film The Spy in Black, Powell’s film career was transformed.

Powell found that he got along very well with the writer Emeric Pressburger, and two began an artistic partnership that lasted for the next to decades. Calling themselves “The Archers,” Powell and Pressburger wasted no time in showing their artistic talents, making more war films including The 49th Parallel featuring Leslie Howard and Laurence Olivier.

In 1942, the pair started their own production company, giving them more artistic freedom and over the next decade, they would use this freedom to create the most daring and innovative films of their times. Their first masterpiece was the British classic The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp starring Roger Livesey and Deborah Kerr, both of whom would go on to star in many more of Powell’s films.

Every year following, they put out another terrific film, until they finally went bankrupt in 1951 and had to slow down. Some of the timeless classics made during this time include the fantasy war film A Matter of Life and Death, the religious drama Black Narcissus, the ballet classic The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, an elaborate staging of the opera by Jacques Offenbach.

Their partnership dissolved with their company but Powell kept on directing, making the disturbing thriller Peeping Tom, which although is considered a masterpiece now, was deemed extremely vulgar and Powell’s directing career was tarnished, his career never recovering.

Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.