Richardson was born, the youngest daughter of a marketing executive and his homemaker wife. She was raised in Southport, Lancashire where she became so enamored of acting during childhood that she quit academic pursuits at age 17 to train at the prestigious Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. After two years there, she embarked on the regional theater circuit, debuting professionally at the Manchester Library Theater in 1979 and arriving on London's West End two years later in "Moving." Following a string of praised stage performances in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Educating Rita," Richardson launched her television career with a guest spot on the British sitcom "Agony." Richardson's career really took off in 1984 with a role in the syndicated television miniseries, "A Woman of Substance," her feature acting debut in "The Innocent," and the first of several collaborations with director Mike Newell on his stage play "Life of Einstein," in which she played multiple, wildly different roles. The following year, Newell cast her in the central role of Ruth Ellis, a spurned murderess and the last woman hanged in England, in the period drama "Dance with a Stranger" (1985). With brassy platinum hair and a hard-shell demeanor, Richardson shined in the role and rose above the clichéd material.Following the overwhelming, international response to that feature, Richardson retreated to the British stage and television screen for the remainder of the decade. She became a member of the stock company of Rowan Atkinson's comedic "Blackadder" series and acted in the London premiere of Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind" (1987). Director Steven Spielberg coaxed her back onto the big screen to play a reserved British prisoner in a WWII Japanese internment camp who befriends a young boy (Christian Bale) in "Empire of the Sun" (1987), though heavy-handed special effects essentially stole that show. She starred on the British stage in Harold Pinter's "Mountain Language" (1988) and appeared in "Blackadder's Christmas Carol" (BBC, 1988) and "Blackadder Goes Forth" (BBC, 1989), as well as resuming her film career with a bang as a society matron who shares an Italian villa with three other British women in Newell's "Enchanted April" (1991; released in the USA in 1992). She was honored with a Golden Globe Award for the art house hit and also earned critical accolades for two other features that same year: Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game" (1992), in which she played a tough as nails IRA member and "Damage" (1992), in which Louis Malle tapped her to play the wife of a politician who has an affair with their son's girlfriend.The year of back-to-back triumphs closed with Richardson's Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress (and her BAFTA win) for "Damage." Two years later, she was nominated in the Best Actress Oscar category for her mesmerizing turn as the mentally troubled first wife of poet T.S. Eliot in "Tom and Viv" (1994). By then the actress had become a well-known name in Hollywood, but remained determined to work on her own terms, eschewing offers to act in sub-par American films in favor of projects like HBO's original movie "Fatherland" (1994), for which she won another Golden Globe Award, and a riotous guest appearance as a harried new mother on the cult hit "Absolutely Fabulous." Robert Altman cast her to great effect as the drug addicted wife of a politician in his otherwise dull ode to crime and politics in the jazz age, "Kansas City" (1996), before Richardson effectively stole the proceedings playing the best friend of the deceased Emma in "The Evening Star" (1996), the disappointing sequel to "Terms of Endearment" (1983). On the London stage, she starred opposite Mike Nichols (in a rare acting role) in Wallace Shawn's "The Designated Mourner," which was filmed and received a limited theatrical release in 1997. Adopting another flawless American accent, Richardson enjoyed a supporting role in Robert Duvall's "The Apostle" (1997) as a love interest of Duvall's wayward Pentecostal minister and for her work, earned a nomination as Best Supporting Female from the Independent Spirit Awards.Richardson took home a Golden Globe statue for playing the evil Queen Mab in the NBC miniseries "Merlin" (1998) and made another fantastical impression as the Queen of Hearts in the network's live action "Alice in Wonderland" (1999). After playing the unhappy, wealthy wife of a political candidate in "The Big Brass Ring" (Showtime, 1999), based on a script by the late Orson Welles, she returned to fairy tale territory as the mysterious stepmother of Christina Ricci in Tim Burton's lavish reworking of "Sleepy Hollow" (1999). She then lent her distinctive vocal talents to the blockbuster animated feature "Chicken Run" (2000) and joined Sylvester Stallone and Rachael Leigh Cook in the disappointing remake of the British classic crime film, "Get Carter" (2000). She made a delightfully wicked Queen Elspeth in the USA Network telepic "Snow White: The Fairest of Them All" (2001) before returning to theaters in a pair of critically acclaimed films centered on emotionally harrowing subject matter. For "Spider" (2002), Richardson earned London and San Francisco Film Critics awards for playing the mother of a schizophrenic. In "The Hours" (2002), she portrayed the sister of author Virginia Woolf and member of an exceedingly complicated family. After taking on the role of the Queen of Denmark in the made-for-Julia Stiles romantic comedy "The Prince & Me" (2004), Richardson appeared as the stern grande dame of an opera house in the flop "Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera" (2004), directed by an over-exuberant Joel Schumacher.The rare misstep was quickly righted when Richardson gave a Golden Globe- nominated performance as Queen Mary in the BBC drama about a forgotten member of the Royal Family, "Lost Prince" (2004). She was tapped by longtime collaborator Mike Newell for a supporting role as a journalist in the 2005 mega-blockbuster "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (2005), sticking close to fantasy to reprise her role as the Lady of the Lake in "Merlin's Apprentice" (2005). Turns in well-received independent films "Wah Wah" (2006) and "Paris, je t'aime" (2007) were followed by a surprising appearance in the broad holiday comedy "Fred Claus" (2007) and the futuristic flop "Southland Tales" (2007). Richardson returned to British television with a recurring role on Jennifer Saunders' "The Life Times of Vivienne Vyle" (BBC, 2007-) before taking on a co-starring role as the Duchess of Kent in the British production "The Young Victoria" (2009), starring Emily Blunt and Jim Broadbent.