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She began her acting career in 1963 with the National Youth Theatre, later joining the Royal Shakespeare Company. She has since then appeared with several theatre companies in a wide variety of roles. She is widely regarded as one of the greatest British actresses of all time.
She began appearing in movies while still very young but did not really attract attention until the late 1970s. Her movies include: Caligula (1979), The Long Good Friday (1980), Excalibur (1981), Cal (1981), White Nights (1985), Pascali's Island (1988), The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), The Madness of King George (1994), Gosford Park (2001), and The Queen in 2007, for which she won the Academy Award for best actress, and several other awards (Golden Globe, BAFTA, etc.).