Being a national treasure can be a double-edged sword. It carries a sense of predictability, of recycling character types. But for Emma Thompson, blasting into her 60s as a caustic chat show host in Late Night, all that is promised is another decade of subverting expectations.
Thompson, the daughter of actress Phyllida Law and The Magic Roundabout’s Eric Thompson, burst onto the scene as part of a power wave of British thesps straight out of Cambridge’s famous Footlights troupe. Alongside Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, she wove her way through sketch shows and TV dramas before clinching her first cinematic role in Richard Curtis and Mel Smith’s The Tall Guy.
In those early days, Thompson’s personal and professional partnership with Kenneth Branagh produced a run of high-profile projects – from his critically acclaimed Henry V to the melodramatic noir thriller Dead Again (the scissors from which appeared to have been among the inspirations for Jordan Peele’s Us). But it was Thompson’s turn as Margaret Schlegel in Merchant Ivory’s acclaimed 1992 adaptation of Howards End that propelled her to international superstardom.
Nominated for nine Academy Awards, the film clinched three, including Best Actress for Thompson. And with it Schlegel – a quietly determined progressive ahead of her time – set the tone for what would become a quintessential Thompson performance: restrained, quietly steely, unexpectedly funny women, accustomed to concealing the burning passion in their hearts.
Over the years she would circle back to that theme, though she would not lack variety. Alongside tragicomic Maggie in Peter’s Friends and her unexpected slapstick turn in Junior, there would be Miss Kenton in The Remains of the Day. Thompson’s electric Beatrice sparring with Branagh’s Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing is unforgettable, but her polar opposite, Sense and Sensibility’s dutiful Elinor Dashwood, would help Thompson make history. Just three years after scooping her first Academy Award, Thompson would be back for another as the first ever recipient of acting and writing Oscars, when her Austen adaptation scored Best Adapted Screenplay.
With that, Thompson could easily have been absorbed into the Hollywood machine. But she publicly expressed a dislike of living in Los Angeles for too long and seemed to take a step back – though she was still working regularly across projects like Primary Colors, The Winter Guest and TV’s Angels in America. Once again a quietly devastating performance would take centre stage, when she reunited with Richard Curtis for Love Actually and broke the nation’s heart as betrayed wife Karen.
Since then, Thompson has only shown greater and greater range, with a determined return to her comedy roots at the heart of it. She’s voiced the mother of a Pixar princess as well as a Disney teapot, and given screen life to a batty Divination professor. She created the character of a magical children’s nanny, while also getting her teeth into life as the famously cantankerous creator of Mary Poppins. And she clearly enjoys every inch of her acid-flecked performance as Katherine Newbury in Late Night – in stark contrast to her real-life progressive politics, outspoken involvement in the #MeToo movement and environmental activism. Plus she’s picked up a well-earned Damehood, famously attending the royal ceremony wearing comfy trainers with sharp tailoring. All of which suggests Thompson’s lifelong instinct for challenging expectations is going nowhere in her seventh decade.
Top Five Emma Thompson films (in chronological order):
Howards End (1992)
Ismail Merchant and James Ivory’s taken on E.M. Forster’s exploration of class structures had an embarrassment of riches as far as casting was concerned – and a razor-sharp Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script to boot. Thompson’s Margaret Schlegel rooted the film, transforming slowly from the pragmatic and cheery neighbour of the ailing Mrs Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) to the quietly formidable wife of her friend’s widower (Anthony Hopkins).
The Remains of the Day (1993)
Thompson would reunite with the Merchant Ivory team and Hopkins the following year for the deeply moving Ishiguro adaptation The Remains of the Day, to enormous acclaim. A quieter, more searing film than its predecessor, it’s largely regarded as the jewel in the Merchan -Ivory crown. The relationship between Thompson’s outspoken Miss Kenton and the deeply dutiful and repressed butler Stevens breaks hearts with every viewing.
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Kenneth Branagh’s exuberant Shakespearean romp was notable for its unexpected casting – Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves as rival royal brothers, and Michael Keaton as Dogberry. But as sparring Beatrice and Benedick, Thompson and then-husband Branagh stole the show from under the Hollywood stars’ noses. Thompson’s relentless energy and flashing grin breathed sparkling life into one of Shakespeare’s most loved – and sharpest-tongued – female characters.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
This was a significant passion project for Thompson; an Austen devotee, she developed the script over five years. As Ang Lee’s first English-language film, there were well-documented culture clashes on set when his direct and authoritative style initially chafed against a cast who had assumed they’d work more collaboratively. Ultimately they developed a deep trust, and the film deliciously combines the lightness of its starry British cast’s mannered humour and the Taiwanese director’s naturalistic flair and passion for intimate stories. It’s best summed up in the scene where Thompson’s Elinor finally lets the dam break, unleashing sobs and laughter in a cathartic wave.
Love Actually (2003)
Dependable mum Karen’s realisation that her husband Harry (Alan Rickman) has bought an expensive necklace for another woman became one of the most piercingly memorable moments of Richard Curtis’ most loved (and loathed) movie. It also led Thompson to disclose in an interview that she had drawn on personal heartbreak, confirming after many years rumours that her first marriage had collapsed after Branagh had strayed. “I’ve had so much bloody practice at crying in a bedroom,” Thompson was quoted as saying, “then having to go out and be cheerful, gathering up the pieces of my heart and putting them in a drawer.”