10 Best Female Performances in Christopher Nolan Movies, Ranked


Christopher Nolan is unquestionably one of the most talented directors working today and certainly one of the most financially successful, as the massive box office sum for Oppenheimer testifies. Nolan’s skills as a writer have been praised by critics and audiences, resulting in numerous accolades, including an Oscar nomination. However, he’s frequently criticized for featuring few and often underdeveloped female characters in his films.

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While this may be true in some cases, it should not take away from the fact that Nolan has collaborated with some of the best actresses working today. These actresses have delivered stellar performances in Christopher Nolan’s movies, often elevating surface-level and, it must be said, thinly-written roles to reach new heights. Through compelling acting and sheer talent, these actresses have stood out, sometimes even becoming some of the most memorable aspects of their respective movies.

10 Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock

‘Oppenheimer’ (2023)

Image via Universal Pictures

Florence Pugh‘s performance as Jean Tatlock in Oppenheimer has been divisive. The graphic sex scenes between Pugh and Murphy inspired Nolan’s first R-rating from the MPAA in over two decades, while critics debated whether the role lived up to Pugh’s talents. Nonetheless, Tatlock’s struggles with mental illness and her eventual suicide create one of the most startling tragedies in the film, and Nolan’s tenderness in depicting her death proves that he actually has a heart. Tatlock’s passing never leaves the viewer’s mind as Oppenheimer ages.

Much of Oppenheimer’s emotional value stems from Pugh’s performance, as it is a technically driven film that deals with many complex scientific principles. While Cillian Murphy fully embodies Oppenheimer’s genius, his relationship with Tatlock explores the sense of « normalcy » that his life lacks as a result of his ambitious profession. Despite the brevity of her screen time, Pugh proves to be essential to the film’s character study.

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9 Carrie-Anne Moss as Natalie

‘Memento’ (2000)

Natalie and Leonard having lunch at a diner in Memento
Image Via Newmarket

Memento is one of Nolan’s best-written films and serves as an interesting take on the neo-noir genre. Since the viewer is experiencing Leonard Shelby’s (Guy Pearce) flashbacks at the same time as he is, all of the supporting players are filtered through his point of view. However, bartender Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) isn’t there to be objectified by Leonard, Nolan, or the audience. She’s more than a little skeptical about Leonard’s enigmatic claims and shows defiance when he tries to explain the specifics of his situation.

The ever-underrated Carrie-Anne Moss does a great job of hinting at the story’s ramifications while never giving away its shocking twist ending. It’s an amusing performance that, like most of Nolan’s female characters, is sadly not given enough screen time. This only makes Moss’ performance even more noteworthy, as she leaves a striking impression in an already busy story. Memento is not an easy movie to follow, and performances like Moss’ help make the narrative easier to digest.

memento-movie-poster

Memento
Release Date
May 25, 2001

Runtime
113 minutes

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8 Elizabeth Debicki as Kat

‘Tenet’ (2020)

Kat pointing a gun somewhere off-camera in 'Tenet'
Image via Warner Bros.

Tenet may be Nolan’s version of a James Bond movie, but Elizabeth Debicki‘s commanding performance as Katherine Barton is certainly not some useless Bond girl. As the wife of the ruthless Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), « Kat » takes an active role in plotting his downfall alongside the Protagonist (John David Washington) and Neil (Robert Pattinson).

Debicki shows expertise in handling Nolan’s oblique and confusing dialogue; a fast-paced early scene where Kat and The Protagonist discuss both art and fate is simply electrifying when it could have easily been disorienting. Tenet makes many less-than-subtle homages to classic noir films, but Debicki’s performance is not simply another femme fatale. Kat is integral to the final mission once she sides with The Protagonist, and Debicki deserves credit for giving agency to a character that could have easily been discounted.

Tenet Poster

Tenet
Release Date
August 22, 2020

Runtime
195

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7 Rebecca Hall as Sarah Borden

‘The Prestige’ (2006)

Sarah at a restaurant in The-Prestige
Image via Warner Bros.

Nolan’s The Prestige is guilty of killing off a female character early on for shock value, but Rebecca Hall’s Sarah Borden plays a much more prominent role in the rest of the film. As the wife of the brilliant stage magic performer Alfred (Christian Bale), Sarah gets a close look at what madness and obsession can do to a person. While Nolan’s films are often criticized for being « emotionally cold, » the final conversations between Alfred and Sarah are among the most moving that he’s ever written.

The Prestige is perhaps Nolan’s most personal film, as it analyzes the consequences of an intense artistic drive on all aspects of someone’s life. The relationship between Alfred and Sarah feels genuine in a way that his films rarely do. This is in part thanks to the strong chemistry between Hall and Bale, but she deserves more credit. Hall takes a fragile character and allows the audience into her world, showing the wreckage that the artist’s obsession leaves on his loved ones and making the story feel somehow crueler.

The Prestige Film Poster

The Prestige
Release Date
October 20, 2006

Runtime
130 minutes

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6 Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand

‘Interstellar’ (2014)

Brand standing next to Cooper while they both have confused expressions in 'Interstellar.'
Image via Paramount Pictures

Although Interstellar is primarily focused on the relationship between the astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his young daughter, the other members of the NASA team hold equally important weight within the story. Among these standout characters is Anne Hathaway‘s Dr. Amelia Brand, a researcher who joins the mission after her father John (Michael Caine) recruits Cooper.

She expertly fleshes out Brand’s scientific brilliance, but Hathaway’s genuine capacity for emotion makes her performance incredibly impactful. This is particularly noteworthy, as Nolan’s films can often be emotionally oblique. However, Interstellar wears its heart on its sleeve with an earnest message about the power of love to bend space and time, and Hathaway is the living embodiment of these ambitious themes. Even Nolan’s dialogue feels more profound, thanks to her performance.

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Interstellar
Release Date
November 7, 2014

Runtime
169 minutes

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5 Marion Cotillard as Mal

‘Inception’ (2010)

Marion Cotillard as Mallorie Cobb holding out a gun in Inception.
Image via Warner Bros

French actress Marion Cotillard may be best known for her Academy Award-winning role in La Vie En Rose, but Nolan helped introduce her to a wider audience. Cotillard’s performance as Mal in Inception is one of the film’s best; not only is she playing a version of the character that exists within Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) memory, but also the haunting presence that he is unable to erase from his mind in the wake of her death.

It’s an inventive performance on Cotillard’s part, an interesting subversion of the femme fatale trope that gets remarkably sincere by the time the film concludes. Mal is perhaps the most dynamic character in Inception; although she was once the love of Cobb’s life, she has been transformed by his anger and shame into a shadowy representation of his worst impulses. Simply put, Cotillard does miracles with the material, showing how any good memories of Mal have been entirely subverted as she grows to occupy a larger role in Cobb’s mind.

inception-movie-poster

Inception
Release Date
July 15, 2010

Runtime
148

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4 Hillary Swank as Ellie Burr

‘Insomnia’ (2002)

Ellie Burr talking to someone off-camera in Insomnia
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

Unlike a majority of Nolan’s other female characters, Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) isn’t a wife, a mother, a femme fatale, or a romantic interest. Instead, she’s a more than competent police officer who takes an active role in solving the central murder in 2002’s Insomnia. The dynamic between Ellie and the senior police detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) is one of Insomnia’s more interesting interpersonal relationships. If Will represents the sins of an older generation of law enforcement, Ellie represents the hope that they will improve in the future.

This is a very inspiring performance from one of the industry’s greatest talents. The generational divide between Will and Ellie is central to Insomnia’s analysis of law enforcement; while Will has grown so confident in his abilities that he’s willing to bend the rules to complete his cases, Ellie still holds on to the integrity that her position requires. Swank beautifully embodies Ellie’s inexperience without falling into naiveté, showing a capable woman learning in the line of work without allowing it to corrupt her worldview.

Movie Poster for Insomnia

Insomnia
Release Date
May 24, 2002

Runtime
118 minutes

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3 Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman

‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012)

Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises
Image Via Warner Bros.

Three decades after Michelle Pfeiffer nailed the part of Selina Kyle/Catwoman in Tim Burton‘s all-time great superhero sequel Batman Returns, Anne Hathaway reinvented a modern version in The Dark Knight Rises. Her version of Selina has one of the film’s most fascinating arcs. Like Bruce in Batman Begins, Selina learns that faith in other people may be more rewarding than she had initially believed. The criticism that Nolan’s films are humorless isn’t true of The Dark Knight Rises, as the banter between Selina and Bruce is often quite entertaining.

Hathaway captures the intense moral dilemma that Selina finds herself in once she allies herself with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). Despite knowing that he is representative of a wealthy class she detests, Selina finds herself attracted to the enigmatic billionaire. The excellent chemistry between Bale and Hathaway adds a level of heart and humor to a film that otherwise takes itself quite seriously.

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2 Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer

‘Oppenheimer’ (2023)

Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer looking to the distance while white sheets hang behind her in Oppenheimer
Image via Universal Pictures

Emily Blunt certainly doesn’t have any doubts about Nolan’s ability to write female characters, as she claimed that her role in Oppenheimer was « one of the best parts that anyone has ever written for me. » Her performance as Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, adds a layer of humanity to the titular scientist’s experiences and shows the human costs of what his research entails.

Blunt’s performance is the perfect counterbalance to Murphy’s. While Oppenheimer is introverted and rarely speaks out, even to defend his honor, Kitty is aggressive, bold, and often overwhelming. What could have easily been a generic wife role becomes a powerful representation of assertiveness thanks to Blunt’s incisive work. What’s more impressive is that Blunt does so much with so little; two of Oppenhimer’s most cathartic scenes are only as impactful thanks to her confident, decisive performance, briefly yet assuredly stealing the film from Murphy’s grip.

1 Jessica Chastain as Murphy Cooper

‘Interstellar’ (2014)

Jessica Chastain as adult Murph, standing in a corn field in Interstellar
Image via Paramount Pictures

Oscar-winner Jessica Chastain is among her generation’s best actresses, refusing to take on any underwritten female roles. Her commitment to female representation is clear as she helped create one of Nolan’s best female characters yet with her performance as Murphy, the daughter of astronaut Joseph Cooper. Although they are separated by space and time (literally), Cooper and Murphy’s father-daughter bond drives Interstellar’s narrative and makes it Nolan’s most emotional film.

Chastain’s heartbreaking emotional reaction as she ages without her father is one of the film’s most devastating scenes and one of the finest moments in her acclaimed career. Even though McConaughey and Chastain don’t share any screen time, it’s engaging to see how Murphy’s memories of her father continue to give her inspiration as she continues her research. A master of emotional acting, Chastain is profoundly affecting as Murph, firmly guiding Interstellar’s plot during the second half and anchoring it in something real and undeniably humane.

NEXT: Every Christopher Nolan Movie, Ranked by Rewatchability

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