The enigmatic Cillian Murphy has consistently captivated audiences with his exceptional performances and versatile range of roles, for nearly three decades now. Born on May 25, 1976, into a family of educators, Murphy’s father worked for the Irish Department of Education, and his mum was a French teacher. From a young age, he showed an interest in music. He even rocked out on the guitar in a few bands during his late teens.
But here’s the kicker: The Irish actor actually started off studying law at University College Cork (UCC). Talk about a career swerve! He soon realized that his heart wasn’t in the law books but on the stage, and soon dropped out to chase his acting dreams.
His acting debut was in the stage production of Enda Walsh’s play Disco Pigs. Later, in 2001, Cillian Murphy portrayed the same central character in the movie version. The Irish actor garnered international attention after starring in 28 Days Later (2002) by Danny Boyle. In the 2000s, Murphy starred in blockbusters (Cold Mountain, Batman Begins) as well as landed iconic roles in movies like Breakfast on Pluto (2005) and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006).
The actor continues to juggle big-budget movies and independent films effectively. Cillian Murphy has always been a private person. But despite his aversion to the spotlight, he’s now a global star thanks to the success of the TV series Peaky Blinders and his recent collaboration with director Christopher Nolan in one of the best films of 2023. Quickly then, let’s take a moment to appreciate and celebrate some of the best Cillian Murphy movies and TV shows:
Best Cillian Murphy Movies and TV Shows
12. Anthropoid (2016)
Sean Ellis’ brutal thriller is based on the true story of World War II Operation Anthropoid, where two Czech soldiers parachuted into German-occupied Prague to assassinate the ‘Butcher of Prague’ and Third Reich’s governor of Moravia and Bohemia, Reinhard Heydrich. Stanley Kubrick’s former assistant Anthony Frewin co-wrote the script. Dispatched by the Czech government in exile in London, two men embark on this assassination mission: Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan). However, Anthropoid doesn’t end with Heydrich’s assassination. It also details the devastating aftermath, where thousands of Czechs were executed in retaliation.
Murphy plays Josef, a man of unwavering conviction. Though he initially fits the archetype of a ruthless militant, Murphy gradually displays his character’s humanity and wisdom. Director Ellis depicts his two central characters as ordinary men caught in the fog of war. Accordingly, Murphy and Dornan are conflicted and stressed by the paradoxical circumstances.
11. Red Eye (2005)
Cillian Murphy plays a picture-perfect villain with the right mix of charm and coldness in Wes Craven’s thriller Red Eye. The plot centers on a wealthy hotel manager, Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), who finds herself caught in a nightmarish scenario when she is seated next to a charming but sinister stranger, Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy), during a red-eye flight. As the flight progresses, tension escalates, and Lisa’s life is at stake as she is coerced into a deadly plot.
Despite some generic moments, the thriller’s deadly cat-and-mouse game predominantly works due to the compelling lead performances. In the film’s opening half-hour, Murphy is the lovable guy from a rom-com movie. But his quick transformation into a terrifying villain, thankfully, distracts us from the narrative’s logical flaws. The script was written for Sean Penn, but Wes Craven chose a much younger Cillian Murphy.
10. Sunshine (2007)
Long before playing the famous physicist in Nolan’s magnum opus, Cillian Murphy took up a similar role in Danny Boyle’s science fiction film Sunshine. Boyle collaborated with his 28 Days Later script writer Alex Garland to create a unique doomsday scenario. Set in 2057 AD, Sunshine follows a space crew led by Cillian Murphy’s Robert Capa, on a momentous mission to reignite our dying sun. Their method: detonating a massive nuclear fission bomb. Interestingly, this is not the first endeavor of its kind. A previous space crew has supposedly disappeared without a trace. Murphy’s crew is humanity’s last glimmer of hope.
Murphy closely worked with physicist Dr. Brian Cox to hone the demeanor and speech patterns of his character, Robert Capa. In the lead role, Murphy brings the right mix of arrogance, dry humor, and camaraderie to keep the crew invested in the mission. However, as the gripping plot unfolds, turmoil plagues Capa and his companions. Murphy is supported by a great ensemble cast, including Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, and Michelle Yeoh.
9. The Batman Begins (2005)
It was recently revealed that in 2003 when Christopher Nolan was looking for someone to play Bruce Wayne/Batman, Cillian Murphy auditioned for the role. Though Murphy wasn’t selected for the eponymous superhero in Batman Begins (the role went to Christian Bale), the film marked the first of many collaborations with Nolan. Cillian Murphy played Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow, the film’s primary villain. Batman Begins mainly addresses the theme of fear and the struggles to overcome it.
Murphy’s Scarecrow has a deeper understanding of human psychology. He uses a special toxin gas to induce his victims with paranoia and fear. Crane’s piercing blue eyes and good looks perfectly mask his manipulative and deranged nature. Murphy offers a suave, low-key performance as Dr. Crane. He had a cameo in the two sequels to Batman Begins, collectively known as Nolan’s Batman Trilogy or Dark Knight Trilogy. In Dark Knight Rises, Bane (Tom Hardy) releases Dr. Crane from prison, and he presides as a judge in a kangaroo court.
8. Dunkirk (2017)
Christopher Nolan’s intense war drama chronicled the rescue and evacuation of Allied soldiers from Britain, France, and Belgium from the beaches of Dunkirk between May 26 and June 4, 1940, as the German army bore down on them. Amid the excellent ensemble cast, Cillian Murphy played a nameless soldier, only credited as ‘Shivering Soldier,’ who nevertheless came across as a representative of all the traumatized soldiers on the battlefield.
Murphy’s Shivering Soldier is rescued by a civilian boat. Soon, he is informed that the ship is crossing the English Channel to evacuate more British soldiers. Murphy’s character becomes desperate and hysterical having witnessed the horrors of war first-hand. In fact, these scenes were shot on the water aboard a real ship instead of a studio water tank. Murphy offers a restrained performance, profoundly exhibiting the war’s emotional and psychological toll on the human psyche. It might be a small role, but he efficiently fleshes out the character’s emotional conflicts.
7. 28 Days Later (2002)
Widely regarded as one of the best zombie genre films of all time, 28 Days Later by Danny Boyle unleashes a ‘rage virus’ that devastates London. The movie opens with Cillian Murphy’s protagonist Jim, waking up from a coma in a deserted, dystopian city. He meets Selene, a tough woman portrayed by Naomie Harris. But their survival is threatened when a military broadcast promising safety in Manchester turns out to be a trap.
Right from the opening frames, the gaunt, hollow-cheeked Cillian Murphy brilliantly expresses his lone character’s vivid spectrum of emotions, from bemusement to terror. His performance fosters a deep connection, maintaining audience empathy even as Jim’s journey takes a horrifying turn. Despite his shocking actions against ruthless soldiers, we root for him and understand what drove him to commit extreme acts. Murphy’s nuanced performance humanizes Jim, making his actions relatable and his struggle compelling.
6. Breakfast on Pluto (2005)
Neil Jordan, the director of The Crying Game and The Butcher Boy, presents the light-hearted and whimsical tale of Patrick Braden (Cillian Murphy) in Breakfast on Pluto, adapted from Patrick McCabe’s novel. The film follows Patrick, who later prefers the name ‘Kitten,’ as he is abandoned as a baby on a Catholic Church doorstep in Northern Ireland. Growing up, Kitten finds joy in dressing as a woman and heads to London in the 1960s to uncover the truth about his mother’s identity.
Breakfast on Pluto unfolds through vignettes, capturing various phases and adventures in Kitten’s life. Cillian Murphy’s captivating and versatile performance immerses us in the character’s journey, effortlessly blending comedy and tragedy. The film boasts an exceptional ensemble cast, featuring notable fellow Irish actors Liam Neeson, Ruth Negga, and Stephen Rea.
5. Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan’s Inception is a sci-fi heist thriller revolving around Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who leads a team specialized in stealing or implanting ideas in someone’s dreams. The target of their operation is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of a powerful business magnate (Pete Postlethwaite). They plan to infiltrate Fischer‘s mind and plant an idea. As Cobb orchestrates a complex dream-within-a-dream scheme to penetrate Fischer‘s mental defences, unresolved issues from Cobb‘s past resurface.
Robert Fischer serves as the emotional core of the narrative, portraying an emotionally repressed young man seeking validation from his father. Throughout the mission, Cobb‘s influence helps Fischer confront his insecurities and break free from his father’s shadow. Cillian Murphy delivers an exceptional performance, skilfully portraying the different layers of Fischer‘s character. Ultimately, Fischer undergoes a transformative journey, embracing his true emotions.
4. The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)
Ken Loach’s historical drama, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which won the Palme d’Or, explores the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and its aftermath through the eyes of two Irish brothers, Damien and Teddy O’Donovan, played by Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney respectively. The brothers, a medical graduate and an IRA brigade commander, participate in a guerilla war against the British. The negotiation of a treaty for an autonomous Free Irish State under the British Crown divides the IRA and precipitates a civil war, with Teddy supporting the treaty and Damien advocating for a socialist republic of Ireland.
Cillian Murphy, a native of Cork, Ireland where the film was primarily shot, delivers a nuanced performance as Damien, a doctor-in-training turned radicalized footsoldier. His transformation from a studious individual to a courageous yet tormented soldier is convincingly portrayed, adding depth to the film’s narrative.
3. On the Edge (2001)
In John Carney’s Irish film, On the Edge, Cillian Murphy portrays a depressed teenager, Jonathan Breech, grappling with his father’s death and his own suicide attempt. Choosing therapy over prison, Jonathan enters a psychiatric ward where he encounters Dr. Figure (Stephen Rea) and four other suicidal patients. He develops a close bond with Rachel Row (Tricia Vessey), a self-abusive girl burdened by guilt, and their growing affection aids Jonathan‘s battle against his suicidal tendencies.
On the Edge is a skillfully made film that handles its characters’ mental struggles without resorting to sentimentality. Murphy’s performance offers profound insight into Jonathan‘s psychological turmoil, and his interactions with Rea, a composed and determined psychologist, are fascinatingly written and performed. The film is a poignant exploration of grief, love, and recovery.
2. Peaky Blinders (2013-2022)
Peaky Blinders, a Netflix series created by Steven Knight, presents a dramatized narrative of the Shelby family, a fictional gang of criminals rising to high society in 1920s Birmingham, England, inspired by a real-life gang from the 1870s. Cillian Murphy plays Thomas Shelby, a war veteran turned criminal entrepreneur in the series spanning 6 seasons.
Murphy, unaccustomed to playing hyper-masculine roles like Shelby, initially struggled with the character’s intimidating physicality. However, his assertive body language and captivating slow-motion walks through dark alleys became defining aspects of the character. It’s not easy to maintain a character for over a decade, but Murphy successfully portrayed Shelby’s evolution each season.
1. Oppenheimer (2023)
Cillian Murphy, a familiar face in Christopher Nolan movies, finally gets the spotlight in the director’s passion project, Oppenheimer. With Nolan’s cinematic expertise, the historical human narrative is powerfully brought to life. However, it is Murphy’s extraordinary and career-defining portrayal of Robert Oppenheimer that truly transforms the film into a masterpiece. The film traces the life of the morally conflicted scientist, Robert Oppenheimer, from his academic years through the Manhattan Project and his subsequent depression following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
Cillian Murphy’s commanding lead performance in this dialogue-heavy movie, alongside a fascinating ensemble cast, captivates audiences with subtle facial expressions conveying Oppenheimer’s agony and guilt. His powerful performance, particularly in the scene addressing fellow scientists post-Japan’s surrender, sets a new standard for biopic cinema.
WATCH: The Best Films of 2023
There you go! These are the 12 best Cillian Murphy movies and TV shows. If you’d like to further explore his vast filmography, watch Cold Mountain (2003), Broken (2012), In the Heart of the Sea (2015), The Party (2017), and A Quiet Place Part II (2020). Cillian Murphy is currently producing and acting in Tim Mielants’ Small Thing Like These. It’s a historical drama based on the brilliant novella of the same name by Irish author Claire Keegan.
What are your favorite Cillian Murphy performances?
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’