Joely Richardson was born in London in a theatrical family, as she is the daughter of actress Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson, and the granddaughter of Sir Micheal Redgrave and Racheal Kempson, Lady Redgrave. She is the sister of the late actress Natasha Richardson and she is the sister-in-law to Liam Nesson. Joely appeared as an extra at the age of three in the 1968 version of The Charge of the Light Brigade, directed by her father.
Joely and her sister early education began in London at the indepentent St Paul's Girls School in Hammersmith. At the age of fourteen, Richardson moved to boarding school at the indepentent Harry Hopman Tennis School in Tampa, Florida. In 1983, she graduated from the Thacher School in Ojai, California, then she returned to London where she studied at Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Richardson began her career in 1985, where she appeared as flashbacks, to a younger version of her mother in Wetherby. After a leading role in cult success Drowning by Numbers in 1988, her first major role in front of a mass audience was as Joanna Farley in a 1989 television epsiode of Poriot. In 1989 she appeared on an episode of Jim Henson's The Storyteller, she was cast as a princess. She portrayed a teacher on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the 1989 television on Channel 4 series Behaving Badly and also a fictional Finnish Princess Anna in the 1991 screen comedy King Ralph
In 1992, she was in the film Shining Through where she portrayed a Nazi. In 1993, Richardson appeared on the BBC's Lady Chatterley. In 1996, she played fashion designer Antia Campbell-Green in the Disney live-action remake of 101 Dalmations. In 1998, she popular television drama The Echo, she played Amanda Powell. The next year, she played in the science fiction/horror film Event Horizon as Lieutenant Starck, executive officer of the research and rescue ship Lewis and Clark, sent to rescue crew of the long-lost experimental ship Event Horizon.
One year later, Richardson appeared opposite Mel Gibson in the film The Patriot, an American film based on the American Revolution. Later that year, she was modelling a necklace, when director Charles Shyer noticed her resemblance to doomed 18th century French Queen Marie Antoinette. Thus, she secured the role of that queen in the 2001 film The Affair of the Necklace. Also in 2000, she appeared opposite Hugh Laurie in Maybe Baby, Ben Elton's film adaptation of his book Inconceivable.
In 2003, Richardson took on the role of Julia McNamara in the television drama Nip/Tuck, based on the lives of two plastic surgeons in Miami. Her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, has appeared in several episodes, playing her character's mother. In November 2006, it was announced that Richardson would be leaving Nip/Tuck to take care of her sick daughter. She last appeared on the show on 14 November, although creator/writer Ryan Murphy wrote alternate season finale episodes, in case Richardson decided to return. Soon after the season finale, it was announced that Richardson would return for the fifth season of Nip/Tuck, though her role may be limited. In June 2007 it was announced that she would return for 15 of the 22 episodes during the fifth season.
In 2005, Richardson starred in Lies My Mother Told Me, based on a true story about a murderous con artist. In 2007, she played the mother in The Last Mimzy with Timothy Hutton and Chris O'Neil. She also starred in the television drama Wallis & Edward, playing the lead role of Wallis Simpson, lover of Edward, Prince of Wales.
Richardson is signed to Models 1.
In 2009-10, Richardson appeared as Catherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII, in the fourth (and final) season of Showtime's hit period drama The Tudors. The role reunited her with her ex-husband Tim Bevan, who was part of the show's production team.
Joely has recently joined the cast of TV series Titanic - Blood and Steel in which she will play the role of Countess Markievicz.