Emma Thompson: 10 essential performances

On her 60th birthday, we toast the finest performances by British acting treasure – and the holder of a unique Oscars record – Emma Thompson.

David Parkinson
Updated:

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Emma Thompson’s path to national treasurehood has often been rocky. Adored as ‘Emma Talented’ by her Cambridge Footlights pals, she was derided as a ‘luvvie’ while part of the Ken’n’Em axis with husband Kenneth Branagh, and was recently branded a metropolitan elitist snob by one Tory MP for calling Britain “a tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, a cake-filled, misery-laden, grey old island”. Along the way, there have been misfiring sketch shows and misjudged movies. But Thompson has always done things her own way in becoming not only one of our finest screen performers but also the only person in Oscar history to win awards for both acting and writing. 

The Tall Guy (1989)

Director Mel Smith

The Tall Guy (1989)

Between winning the inaugural Perrier Award for The Cellar Tapes (1982) and a BAFTA for Fortunes of War and Tutti Frutti (both 1987), Thompson made her feature bow in Mel Smith and Richard Curtis’s undervalued comedy. She’s relishably brisk as Kate Lemon, the NHS nurse giving flailing American actor Dexter King (Jeff Goldblum) a series of inoculations. The consummation of their relationship remains one of cinema’s most gleeful sex scenes, as fruit, toast, milk, photographs and furniture get caught up in the frenzy. When Goldblum is flummoxed by her nonchalant gratitude for this one-night stand, Thompson beams: “You are going to be so much fun to tease.”

Howards End (1992)

Director James Ivory

Howards End (1992)

While Henry V (1989) and Dead Again (1991) had confirmed Thompson and Branagh as the new Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, she established herself as an exceptional screen performer in her own right with an Oscar-winning display in Merchant Ivory’s final E.M. Forster adaptation. She had written to director James Ivory claiming she knew precisely how to play the part of Margaret Schlegel: a woman who loses her illusions and grows increasingly introspective as she comes to understand husband Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) and his worldview, notably through his treatment of the working-class couple adopted by her sister, Helen (Helena Bonham Carter). Yet Thompson deftly ensures that Margaret remains an enigma. 

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Director James Ivory

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Bidding Branagh adieu with Peter’s Friends (1992) and Much Ado about Nothing (1993), Thompson reunited with Merchant Ivory in a Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation she declared “a masterpiece of withheld emotion”. As her maid grandmother had been abused by an employer, Thompson was keen to explore “the deformity that servitude inflicts upon people”, as witnessed in the sequences in which Darlington Hall housekeeper Miss Kenton reins in her disgust at the dismissal of two German-Jewish servants and fails to coax Stevens the butler (Anthony Hopkins) into admitting his feelings for her. It brought a best actress Oscar nomination in the same year that she got a best supporting nod for In the Name of the Father (1993).

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Director Ang Lee

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Following contrasting roles in Junior (1994) and Carrington (1995), Thompson made her screenwriting bow in adapting Jane Austen’s first novel. Hired by producer Lindsay Doran on the basis of the period sketches in the much-maligned BBC show Thompson (1988), she had wanted to do Persuasion or Emma and took five years to correlate the manners and mores of 1811 with modern notions of class and gender. Yet, while she remained wholly true to the spirit of the text, Thompson’s unique Oscar success has unfairly overshadowed her delightfully deft performance as the impoverished, vulnerable, yet resourceful Elinor Dashwood, which owed something to Ang Lee’s exhortation not to look so old. 

The Winter Guest (1997)

Director Alan Rickman

The Winter Guest (1997)

Despite the Dayton, Ohio revelations in her hilarious Emmy-winning turn in Ellen (1997), Thompson is the daughter of Magic Roundabout maestro Eric Thompson and Phyllida Law. The bond with Law is readily evident in Alan Rickman’s adaptation of Sharman Macdonald’s play. They play a mother and daughter talking around their fears for each other after Frances (Thompson) loses her husband and debates whether she can safely leave the ailing Elspeth (Law) to begin a new life in Australia. This is one of four storylines unfolding across a Scottish coastal town on a jeelit day. But such is the rapport between the pair that they hold mesmerising sway. 

Wit (2001)

Director Mike Nichols

Wit (2001)

Reuniting with Mike Nichols after Primary Colors (1998), the shaven-headed Thompson gives perhaps the finest performance of her career in this HBO adaptation of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a John Donne specialist undergoing a brutal experimental treatment for ovarian cancer. Having reworked the scenario with Nichols, Thompson not only gets inside the head of Vivian Bearing, but she also inhabits her suffering, as her body is wracked with pain and she is forced to accept the limitations of knowledge. Thompson’s speeches to camera crackle with cynicism and regret. But the emotional highlight sees old mentor Eileen Atkins read her Margaret Wise Brown’s picture book, The Runaway Bunny.

Love Actually (2003)

Director Richard Curtis

Love Actually (2003)

It’s fascinating to compare the scenes in which Thompson respectively catches Jeff Goldblum and Alan Rickman cheating in The Tall Guy and Richard Curtis’s directorial debut. In the former, she dumps her boyfriend after noticing the familiar way he fills a woman’s wine glass. Here, however, when she receives a Joni Mitchell CD for Christmas after finding an expensive necklace in her husband’s coat pocket, she endures the humiliation for the sake of her children. Thompson has since revealed she drew on past pain for the bedroom sequence, in which she fights back tears to ‘Both Sides Now’. But the real agony comes when she confronts Rickman with his folly.

Nanny McPhee (2005)

Director Kirk Jones

Nanny McPhee (2005)

Having earned a new generation of fans as Sybill Trelawney in the Harry Potter pictures, Thompson remained in kidpic mode as she devoted nine years to adapting this feel-good family saga from Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda stories, which had so delighted her as a child. Sporting warts, a monobrow and a single buck tooth designed by makeup artist Peter King, she makes an imposing entrance as a Hitchcockian silhouette into the lives of widowed Victorian undertaker Cedric Brown (Colin Firth) and his seven unruly offspring. But there’s more mischief than menace in the way she works her magic and guides them towards the slapstickily happy ending.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Director John Lee Hancock

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Having haunted her own character in Stranger than Fiction (2006), Thompson plays an even more controlling author in this astute insight into the power games fought out by P.L. Travers and Walt Disney during the negotiations to adapt her treasured stories into Mary Poppins (1964). Thompson’s repartee with Tom Hanks provides a fascinating contrast of acting styles. But, while she delivers her snippety lines to clipped perfection, this is a masterclass in body language, as she uses grimaces, inclinations of the head and sudden movements of the arms and torso to give an impression of irascible strength when Travers has been left emotionally exposed by her excruciating childhood memories.

The Legend of Barney Thomson (2015)

Director Robert Carlyle

The Legend of Barney Thomson (2015)

Thompson is only two years older than Robert Carlyle, but the decision to cast her as his mother in his directorial debut is the main reason to catch this grimly peculiar adaptation of Douglas Lindsay’s 1999 novel, The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson. Clad in a fake ocelot coat and adeptly aged by makeup artist Mark Coulier, she hurls herself into the role of a former Glaswegian sex worker with a well-stocked chest freezer, who is determined to enjoy herself on her bingo club awaydays after a lifetime of drudgery and disappointment. If you think you know Emma Thompson, just watch the scene of Cemolina at the greyhound track. 

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