After returning to Britain in the early 1990s to pursue family life, Agutter shifted her focus to television, and in 2000 she appeared in a new television adaptation of The Railway Children, this time taking on the role of the mother. Since then she has worked steadily in several British television dramas, including Spooks (2002–03), and Call the Midwife (2012–present).
Agutter was born in Taunton, Somerset, England. She is the daughter of Catherine (née Lynam) and Derek Brodie Agutter, a former British Army officer and entertainment organiser. As a child, she lived in Singapore, Dhekelia (Cyprus) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaya). She was discovered at Elmhurst Ballet School, a boarding school she attended aged 8–16, when a casting agent looked for a young English-speaking girl for a film. She did not get the part but he recommended her to the producers of East of Sudan (1964).
Agutter came to television audiences as Kirsty in the twice-weekly BBC series The Newcomers. The character Kirsty was the daughter of the new managing director of Eden Brothers, the fictional firm that was at the centre of the series. Agutter could appear only during school holidays. At this stage of her career she was listed in credits as Jennifer. In 1968, she was featured in the lavish big-budget 20th Century Fox film musical Star! with Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence. In that motion picture, Agutter played Lawrence's neglected daughter Pamela. Later she played Roberta in a BBC adaptation of The Railway Children (1968) and played the same part in Lionel Jeffries's 1970 film of the book. She followed this with a more serious role in the thriller I Start Counting (1969). She also won an Emmy as supporting actress for her television role as Fritha, in a British television adaptation of The Snow Goose (1971).
Agutter moved into adult roles, beginning with Walkabout (1971), playing a teenage schoolgirl lost with her younger brother in the Australian outback. She auditioned for the role in 1967 but funding problems delayed filming until 1969. The delay meant Agutter was 16 at the time of filming, which allowed the director to include nude scenes. Among them was a five-minute skinny-dipping scene, which was cut from the original US release. She said at the 2005 Bradford Film Festival at the National Media Museum that she was shocked by the film's explicitness but remains on good terms with director Nicolas Roeg. Agutter moved to Hollywood at 21 and appeared in a number of films over the next decade, including The Eagle Has Landed (1976), Logan's Run (1976), Equus (1977, for which she won a BAFTA as Best Supporting Actress), An American Werewolf in London (1981) and an adaptation of the James Herbert novel, The Survivor (1981). Agutter has commented that the innocence of the characters she played in her early films, combined with the costumes and nudity in later adult roles such as Logan's Run, Equus and An American Werewolf in London, are "perfect fantasy fodder".
In 1990, Agutter returned to the UK to concentrate on family life and her focus shifted towards British television. During the 1990s she was cast in an adaptation of Jeffrey Archer's novel Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less and as the scandalous Idina Hatton in the BBC miniseries The Buccaneers, inspired by Edith Wharton's unfinished 1938 book, and made guest appearances in television series such as Red Dwarf and Heartbeat. In 2000 she starred in a third adaptation of The Railway Children, produced by Carlton TV, this time playing the mother. Since then Agutter has had recurring roles in several television series including Spooks, The Invisibles, Monday Monday and The Alan Clark Diaries. In 2012 Agutter resumed her Hollywood career, appearing as a member of the World Security Council in the blockbuster film The Avengers; she reprised her role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). She currently plays Sister Julienne in the BBC television drama series Call the Midwife.
Agutter has appeared in numerous theatre productions since her stage debut in 1970, including stints at the National Theatre in 1972–73, the title role in a derivation of Hedda Gabler at the Roundhouse in 1980 and with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982–83. In 1987–88, Agutter played the role of Pat Green in the Broadway production of the Hugh Whitemore play Breaking the Code, about computer pioneer Alan Turing. In 1995 she was in an RSC production of Love's Labour's Lost staged in Tokyo. She is also a patron of the Shakespeare Schools Festival, a charity that enables school children in the UK to perform Shakespeare in professional theatres.
In 2008 she also guest-starred in the Doctor Who audio drama The Bride of Peladon and played an outlawed scientist in The Minister of Chance. She has appeared as a guest star character ("Fiona Templeton") in the Radio 4 comedy Ed Reardon's Week.
Agutter appears on the 1990 Prefab Sprout song "Wild Horses", speaking the words "I want to have you".
At an arts festival in Bath, Somerset, Agutter met Johan Tham, a Swedish hotelier who was a director of Cliveden Hotel in Buckinghamshire. They married on 4 August 1990, and their son Jonathan was born on 25 December 1990. Agutter lives in London but has a keen interest in Cornwall and once owned a second home in the county on Trelowarren Estate on the Lizard peninsula. She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2012 Birthday Honours for charitable services.
Agutter has been attached to several causes throughout her career. She has been involved in raising awareness of the illness cystic fibrosis, which she believes was responsible for the deaths of two of her siblings. Her niece has the disease. At Agutter's suggestion, an episode of Call the Midwife focused on cystic fibrosis. She has also worked in support of charities, in particular the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, of which she is a patron (she is also a carrier of the genetic mutation). In August 2014, Agutter was also one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian expressing their hope that Scotland would vote to remain part of the United Kingdom in September's referendum on that issue.