Stephen Fry is an incredible talent – and he has a female counterpart, his friend and frequent costar, Emma Thompson. Like Fry, Thompson is a prolific comedian, thinker, writer, and actor. She’s a double-Oscar winner (one for acting, one for writing), and a popular celebrity and entertainer. I recently re-watched her HBO film W;t and was bowled over by her brave and fearless performance, so I thought about putting together an artist in spotlight post centered on Emma Thompson. She’s coming out in a film during the holidays, starring as writer P.J. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, in the Disney movie, Saving Mr. Banks, which looks to be a treat. This isn’t a complete filmography, but my favorite work of Thompson’s – some of these movies and TV shows aren’t classics, but I chose them because Thompson put in a great performance.
The Tall Guy (1989) dir. Mel Smith – I loved this movie, and it’s an early film by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Vicar of Dibley, Four Weddings and a Funeral). I remember seeing the box of the movie at my local Blockbuster with a picture of Jeff Goldbloom towering over a winsome Emma Thompson. It’s a funny movie about a struggling actor in London (Goldbloom) who falls in love with a nurse (Thompson). It’s a great, tiny comedy that has the trademarks of a Richard Curtis comedy – he’s like the Woody Allen of the UK.
Dead Again (1991) dir. Kenneth Branagh – this movie is another childhood memory thing. My mom when on a date to this movie and raved, so I went and saw it, and was hooked. Branagh is Thompson’s ex-husband and a frequent collaborator. It’s a creepy thriller with Thompson playing two women – one a murder victim in the 1940s, the other a traumatized, mute woman in contemporary times.
Howard’s End (1992) dir. James Ivory – I love Merchant-Ivory films, and for a little bit there was a contest between Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson about who would be the queen of the period films. This film is based on the E.M. Forster classic about two sisters (Thompson and Bonham Carter) in Edwardian England who deal with class differences, intrigue, and romance. This film is an excellent critique and study of class and gender differences – Thompson’s character, Margaret, is a lovely woman, who chafes at certain gender and class mores. The title refers to a handsome estate that Margaret inherits from a close friend, that represents the shifting class differences in the early 20th century. Like most Merchant-Ivory movies, it’s beautifully filmed with sumptuous outdoor locales and eye-numbingly gorgeous sets, and an excellent, Oscar-winning performance by Thompson. The illustrious cast also includes Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs), Vanessa Redgrave (Julia), and Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers).
Peter’s Friends (1992) dir. Kenneth Branagh – another Branagh-Thompson film, written by American comedienne Rita Rudner with her husband Martin Bergman. It’s a kind-of British Big Chill with Stephen Fry as the titular character who invites his group of college friends to his home for a reunion. Thompson plays a sad, strange woman who has an unrequited crush on Peter. This is a funny movie, but has some serious themes, including a revelation that Peter shares with his friends. I was surprised at just how good this move is, seeing’s how I’m not a huge fan of Rudner’s, and am impressed at how well she did as a screenwriter. Like with Howard’s End, the cool thing about Peter’s Friends is the great cast which includes Branagh, Hugh Laurie (TV’s House), Imelda Stanton (Vera Drake), Ruder, and Thompson’s mom, Phyllida Law – an amazing actress in her own right.
Much Ado About Nothing (1993) dir. Kenneth Branagh – Branagh emerged as one of the leading interpreters of William Shakespeare’s work, and this movie started a mini-trend of mainstream studio flicks of Shakespeare’s plays with eccentric and crowded casts that lasted up until the 2000s. This is a particularly raucous and loud version of Much Ado with a lot of boisterous and rambunctious performances. Along with Thompson and Branagh – Britain’s answer to Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, the film’s crazy cast includes Denzel Washington (Glory), Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, Michael Keaton (Batman), Richard Briers (Good Neighbours), and Imelda Staunton, among others. The plot is a funny, romantic comedy with the lovers (Thompson and Branagh) warring with each other before finally settling their differences.
The Remains of the Day (1993) dir. James Ivory – another Merchant-Ivory film for Thompson, this one, an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel about a butler (Anthony Hopkins) who travels to visit a woman (Thompson), with whom he worked years before. Both were running a household with an almost-bionic level of efficiency, and eventually become friends, and possibly lovers. Because he never returns her advances, she gets married and leaves the household. The setting of the film is the approaching WWII, and a small and fledgling group of Brits who look for appeasement when dealing with the growing Nazi party. This is another one of Thompson’s wonderful period pieces, with the patented gorgeous cinematography, setttings and scenery. Both Hopkins and Thompson were nominated were for Oscars, as was the film intself.
In the Name of the Father (1993) dir. Jim Sheridan – Thompson won two Oscar nominations – one for Remains of the Day and In the Name of the Father. In Sheridan’s film, Thompson starred as Gareth Peirce, a human rights lawyer, who is representing Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln), one of the Guildford Four – men who were arrested for the Guildford pub bombings – a pair of pub bombings perpetrated by the IRA. Conlon along with his family and friends were unfairly arrested and convicted of the bombings. While Thompson’s fantastic, it’s Day-Lewis’ show and he’s incredible in this movie. The instances of torture and false confessions is interesting in light of the accusations of what’s happening in some of our jails. This isn’t a fun movie – and it’s infuriating how badly Conlon and his loved ones are treated, but it’s an important film to watch.
Junior (1994) dir. Ivan Reitman – Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a scientist who becomes pregnant in this bizarre comedy. Huh. I don’t what’s weirder – Schwarzenegger being pregnant, or Schwarzenegger being a scientist. This movie is ridiculous, don’t get me wrong and the star isn’t up to the comedic task, though he’s gifted by being supported by Thompson as a clutzy doctor and Danny DeVito as a fellow researcher. Look, this is a silly movie – and pretty shitty, but Thompson’s given a chance to be a physical comedienne, and it’s nice to see her step away from the very serious, very British movies she’s primarily known for.
Carrington (1995) dir. Christopher Hampton – another period film, this time about the Bloomsbury group, with Thompson starring as Dora Carrington, a British painter, who has a strange, codependant relationship with Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce, Evita). This is another credible, cool entry Thompson’s resume, with a cool performance by Janet McTeer as Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister).
Sense and Sensibility (1995) dir. Ang Lee – probably my favorite Emma Thompson movie and one of my favorite Jane Austen movies. Thompson stars as Elinor Dashwood, a newly impoverished young woman who must take care of her flighty sister Marianne (Kate Winslet, Titanic) and her ineffectual mother (Gemma Jones, Bridget Jones’ Diary). Hugh Grant’s costars as Edward Ferrars, a kind-hearted young man who catches Elinor’s eye, despite their vast differences in class and wealth. Alan Rickman gives a beautiful performance (his best after Truly, Madly, Deeply) as Col. Brandon, the older, awkward friend who has a deep crush on Marianne, who is oblivious to him, besotted by the handsome John Willoughby (Greg Wise, Thompson’s now-husband). This is a great romantic comedy, with some sparking wit and profound social critique. Thompson won an Oscar for her brilliant adaptation of Austen’s novel, which does the book proud. It’s a great film, with wonderful direction by Lee (Brokeback Mountain).
The Winter Guest (1997) dir. Alan Rickman – Rickman, Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility costar, directs this tiny drama about a Scottish divorcee (Thompson) who lives with her sons, and her life is disrupted by the arrival of her mother (Thompson’s mom, Phyllida Law). This isn’t a great movie, but a very good one – based on a stage play. More people should watch this – and as an added bonus, the soundtrack by Michael Kamen is fantastic.
Primary Colors (1998) dir. Mike Nichols – despite being directed by Mike Nichols and written by Elaine May, this movie is just so-so. It’s based on a novel based on the Clinton presidency. John Travolta plays a comedic version of the former president, and Thompson plays a fictionalized version of Hillary. The role is pretty straight-laced, but Thompson does well. It’s Kathy Bates (Misery) who makes the biggest impression as a tough campaign advisor. Like Junior, this isn’t a sterling gem in Thompson’s resume, but a decent film, and Thompson does a decent Hillary Clinton impression (though her usually-impeccible American accent is a bit uncomfortable here).
Wit (2001) dir. Mike Nichols – a brutal and unflinching look at cancer – Thompson plays the imperious and conceited Vivian Bearing, a literature scholar who is slammed with ovarian cancer. Breaking the fourth wall, she addresses the audience and takes her audience on her journey toward eventual death. During the play, she tackles the problems that she’s facing as she slowly loses her autonomy and sometimes her dignity as she recounts her past lives and regrets when she’s facing her eminent mortality. It’s a uncomprmising and devastating film – but there are moments of humor, despite its grim subject. But it’s also a difficult film to watch. Like with Sense and Sensibility, Thompson also proves she’s a strong screenwriter, penning the script with Nichols. Audra McDonald offers strong support as a compassionate nurse.
Angels in America (2003) dir. Mike Nichols – As with Branagh, Thompson seemed to have found a kindred spirit with Nichols as well. In this adaptation of Tony Kushner’s fable about AIDS in the early 1980s, Thompson stars with Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Mary Louise Parker in multiple roles. It’s a difficult, challenging film – sad, funny, infuriating, with eye-popping performances by all the stars. Kushner’s work is urgent and vital, shouting at an indifferent and hostile environment and society that turned its collective back on the early sufferers of the AIDS crisis.
Love Actually (2003) dir. Richard Curtis – a sprawling romantic comedy about Christmas starring just about every British actor working, along with a sprinkling of some Yanks, as well. It’s a fluffy film about a group of couples, all of whom find their relationships tested during the holidays. Thompson stars with Alan Rickman as a lovely, middle-aged housewife who suspects her husband of infidelity. There’s a gorgeous, heart-wrenching scene that has Thompson perform a slow, gradual breakdown while Joni Mitchell’s lovely “Both Sides Now” plays in the background. The movie is lighter than air, but her presence adds a lot of gravitas and she does a wonderful job. The other actor who matches her is Bill Nighy as a washed-up pop star who’s trying to make a comeback during Christmas. The other actors include Hugh Grant as the dreamy prime minister of the UK, Liam Neeson as a grieving widower, Colin Firth as an introverted loner, Laura Linney as a loving, but put-upon woman, Kiera Knightly as a gorgeous new bride, and Martine McCutcheon as a pretty assistant who catches the eye of Grant’s PM; Billy Bob Thornton has a funny cameo as a goofy Dubya caricature. And as a cool bonus, Sherlock‘s Martin Freeman also has a small role as a porn star (yup…).
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) dir. Alfonso Cuaron and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) dir. David Yates. I loved both of these movies, but Thompson has a tiny role as Sybill Trelawney, a Divination teacher at Hogwarts, whose eyes are magnified with coke bottle glasses. It’s a tiny role in both – though in Yates’ film she gets to a tiny bit more. Still both films – especially Cuaron’s dark entry, are fantastic – and the trio of the kid actors – Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and especially Emma Watson – are great. Plus Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman both handily steal their scenes as teachers at Hogwarts.
Nanny McPhee (2005) dir. Kirk Jones – another Thompson-scripted film, this time she plays a magical nanny – sort of like a more peppery Mary Poppins. This is a great and fun film based on the children’s book series, Nurse Matilda. Colin Firth plays a widower with a brood of rowdy-ass kids who scare off all their nannies, until Nanny McPhee sweeps in – she’s a frumpy, fright, that manages to get the kids in line. Thompson’s great, and no one can play shy sadness like Firth, but the real coup is Angela Lansbury who returns to the big screen after an extended absence. The ending is especially lovely when Nanny McPhee goes through a magical spell at the end of the film.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006) dir. Marc Forster – A fantastic and quirky comedy with Will Ferrell as Harold Crick, an auditor with the IRS who lives an almost-aggressively mundane life, before he finds out that his life is the plot of a novel, by a depressed and neurotic author, Karen Eiffel (Thompson). She narrates his life in a plummy British accent, and he cannot escape her voice over, and learns to his horror, that he may die at the end of Eiffel’s book. He then tries to figure out how to change his fate. Stranger Than Fiction has a funny performance by Dustin Hoffman as a literature professor who tries to help Harold out, and a charming turn by Maggie Gyllenhaal as his love interest. Queen Latifah has a smallish but scene-stealing role as Eiffel’s uber-competent assistant. This is a strange film, a lesser Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that threatens to collapse under its eccentricity, but, alas it’s still a funny and touching film about living one’s life to its fullest.
Brideshead Revisted (2008) dir. Julian Jarrold – a movie version of the Evelyn Waugh novel that was made into a classic BBC drama with Jeremy Irons. This movie had to jettison some of the plot points to fit it into a feature-film. Thompson plays the tyrannical and pious Lady Marchmain, who is trying to control her son Sebastian’s (Ben Whishaw) life. Sebastian makes friends with Charles (Matthew Goode) who falls in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). The movie compresses a few years that takes place over various history events, ultimately culminating in the Blitz in London. Thompson is uncharacteristically unlikable in this movie, but plays the role well (but no one will forget the 1981 version’s Lady Marchmain, Claire Bloom).
Last Chance Harvey (2008) dir. Joel Hopkins – Thompson costars with Dustin Hoffman again in this lovely, sad little dramedy about two singles in London who meet and possibly fall in love in one day. Hoffman plays a struggling writer who loses his job and his alienated by his daughter at her wedding. Thompson plays a bit of a sad sack who has problems with love. They find each other, and they may fall in love during the course of the day and end up together. Like with some of other Thompson’s later work, it’s a slight film, but both Hoffman and Thompson are completely affecting in their roles.