Marleen Gorris was born on 9 December 1948 in Roermond in the Netherlands. She was born to Protestant working-class parents in the very Catholic southern part of the Netherlands. Gorris studied drama at home and abroad. She studied Drama at the University of Amsterdam and has an MA in Drama from the University of Birmingham, England.
It was not until the age of 30 that Gorris began writing scripts. Gorris took her first effort to the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, hoping to interest her in directing it. Akerman, however, told Gorris that she must make the film herself. The result, A Question of Silence (1982), caused considerable international controversy with its story about three unacquainted women who murder a randomly chosen man, the film was hailed by some as a logical case study of what happens when women are driven to the brink by a male-dominated society, while others decried it as a Juvenile revenge fantasy.
Gorris followed up A Question of Silence, with her second film, Broken Mirrors (1984). Set amongst a group of prostitutes in an Amsterdam brothel, the film re-examined some of the themes at play in Gorris' previous feature, particularly in its analysis of the ways in which the patriarchy (literally) starves and strangles women. Viewed as even more radical than Christine M, it was greeted with predictably mixed reactions, although many critics recognized it as a deeply insightful, albeit disturbing, look at the sexual threats (both literal and metaphorical) directed at women in everyday life.
Gorris did not make another film until 1990, when she directed The Last Island (1991). An allegory on the human condition, the film, which told the story of a group of people (two women and five men) and a dog stranded on an island, was dubbed by one critics as "a feminist Lord of the Flies for the '90s." Another indictment of male power - the women are seen as the only balanced, sane people in the group, while the men constantly fall victim to stupidity and violence. The Last Island furthered Gorris' reputation as an insightful and uncompromising feminist filmmaker.
Gorris had her greatest international success to date in 1995 with Antonia's Line (1995). The story of a fiercely independent woman (Willeke van Ammelrooy) and her descendants, it was not as radical as the director's previous work, although a number of critics complained that the men in the film were portrayed as either ineffectual idiots or potential rapists. However, critical support for the film was overwhelming, and it was honored with a number of international awards, including a Golden Calf and a Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
Her next film was Mrs Dalloway (1997), based on the novel by Virginia Woolf, with a cast that included Vanessa Redgrave, Rupert Graves, and Natascha McElhone, the film earned a number of international honors, including an Evening Standard British Film Award. She followed that up with The Luzhin Defence (2000), based upon a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. The film tells the story of the love affair between an eccentric chess champion (John Turturro) and a strong-willed society woman (Emily Watson).
She then directed the film Carolina (2003) starring Julia Stiles, Shirley MacLaine, and Alessandro Nivola, which was released direct-to-video in 2005.
Gorris's 2009 film Within the Whirlwind, is set during Joseph Stalin's Great Purge and based on the chief protagonist Evgenia Ginzburg's highly acclaimed account of her experience of those years. A literature professor, she is falsely convicted of anti-Soviet agitation and sentenced to 10 years hard labor in a Soviet concentration camp. Having lost everything, and no longer wishing to live, she meets Dr. Anton Walter (Ulrich Tukur), a Crimean German political prisoner who is a camp Doctor in Kolyma. He recommends her for a position as a nurse in the camp infirmary. They fall in love and, slowly, Evgenia begins to come back to life. Within the Whirlwind has not been picked up for distribution. According to Watson, "It was delivered pretty much the day the market crashed so nobody was buying anything. You have to be very Zen. Walk away and say: 'I have no idea what’s going to happen and it’s not in my hands.’ At the same time you never quite think that’s going to happen."
Gorris was honored in her homeland with the Netherlands' Golden Calf Award and earned a reputation as a subversive new filmmaker. The title A Question of Silence works on several levels. First, it suggests the patriarchal refusal to hear women’s voices: at Business meetings, the secretary’s insights are ignored; the waitress routinely endures her male customers’ sexist remarks; and the housewife bears a poignant isolation and melancholy. The title also alludes to the women’s shared silence, suggesting that it can function as a tool of solidarity and empowerment.