In 1989 Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V took Hollywood by storm. Not only had he created a very accessible Shakespeare piece for the new generations, with the utmost respect for the source, but he also uncovered a bright new talent, displayed in the last quarter of the film itself. Starring as princess Katherine, Emma Thompson was radiant, immensely beautiful and possessed a curious strength of character that made her presence memorable.
She had been married to Branagh for 2 years (and they would split later in 1993), and had been part of many stage plays with or directed by her husband (they shared the stage in a revival of Look Back In Anger, directed by Dame Judi Dench), and she had already been in a film before: ‘The Tall Guy’ a comedy with Jeff Goldblum. Other films with Brannagh would be ‘Dead Again’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘Peter’s Friends’ in which her performances were always considered excellent.
Emma had been praised in every one of her roles, but then she committed to playing Margaret Schlegel for James Ivory in the exquisite ‘Howard’s End’ and was rewarded with a Best Actress Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA. She then starred again with Anthony Hopkins in another film for Ivory: the beautifully melancholic ‘The Remains of The Day’, which garnered her an Oscar nomination, and doubled the same year receiving a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in Jim Sheridan’s ‘In the Name of the Father’.
By then, she established herself as a gifted and very intellectual actress, a tag she would promptly ask to be removed from any media, but that she underlined when in 1995 wrote and starred in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility.
Ever since, Emma Thompson has been regarded not only as a gifted actress, who can go from very classical costume dramas to modern light comedies (‘Junior’ with Schwarzenneger, ‘Primary Colors’ with Travolta, and an Emmy winning special guest appearance in Ellen where she played a closeted lesbian version of herself), but she is also an accomplished screenwriter.
The following 10-Best list is just a way to recognize her extraordinary presence in modern cinema (and television).
The Remains of the Day
(1993) Directed by James Ivory
Miss Kenton has just been hired at the mansion of American Congressman Mr. Lewis and she finds herself drawn to Mr. Stevens, the Butler, because of admiration, respect and a growing emotional attraction that is reciprocated although it never gets the chance to be fully developed. The pairing of Thompson and Hopkins is magnificent, and their last scenes reminisce of David Lean’s Brief Encounter, in their “missed opportunity/wasted life” feeling. Emma’s work is restrained. This is not a showy role that requires very dramatic scenes. It is a film of nuances, of whispers, of words never spoken but floating around the characters, and you rest assure these two actors do their best to convey them.
(1992) Directed by James Ivory
The film depicts the sudden change in the social landscape in England, when the mid classes were able to climb the ladder in the face of a stale and detached higher class, and Ivory had an excellent script that explained this transformation (penned by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) and the perfect cast, led by the a commanding performance by Thompson who is able to bridge all the characters as she marries aristocrat Henry J. Wilcox and surrender the land to her sister’s son, the heir to the new England.
Saving Mr. Banks
(2013) Directed by John Lee Hancock
Thompson has declared this is her most demanding role and its really effecting as it connects fantasy and reality (past and present) with stoicism and stubbornness. British writer P.L. Travers doesn’t want to surrender her “Mary Poppins” to be made as a Walt Disney film, much less an animated product. We know there is something behind her disdain, and it has to do with how personal the story is, especially if it is to be remembered as the film with those animated penguins dancing with Dick Van Dyke. Every one was shocked when Thompson’s name was not called as one of 2013’s Best Actress Nominees, since she had been in every critics list and had attended every award ceremony. Being an actress and a writer herself, Thompson must have felt the Academy didn’t know what they were doing.
(2005) Directed by Kirk Jones
Some years before, Thompson had penned the screenplay to another Nanny, the opposite and also the complement to Mary Poppins. Nanny McPhee is hideous to look at, but her strong presence and magical powers make sure she does her job as required. The film was so successful it required a sequel in Nanny McPhee returns (2010).
The Winter Guest
(1997) Directed by Alan Rickman
The opportunity to be directed by an extraordinary actor and to share the screen with her real life mother Phyllida Law was too good to pass, and so Thompson became a very obscure widow of somehow submissive character and full of repressed rage in her troubled relationship with her visiting mother.
(2001) Directed by Mike Nichols
Emma penned the script for this made-for-television work, which should be counted as one of her most accomplished character study. As Vivian Bearing, a renowned professor who is forced to reassess her life as she is being treated for terminal ovarian cancer, Thompson avoids tears and drama. She breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience and inform them of what she feels and goes through. At a certain moment, the illness takes over and Vivian is reduced to suffering without the safety net of her wit.
(2003) Directed by Richard Curtis
This choral film that is structured around a Christmas time in London for eight different couples finds its highest moment in Thompson’s character (Karen) learning that her husband is cheating and fighting with her own feelings. As with Judi Dench in ‘Shakespeare in Love’, Thompson reminds us that sometimes short screen time is enough to create a full character and making it deeply connect with audiences.
(1995) Directed by Christopher Hampton. Perhaps her least remembered performance, but one developed to perfection, Thompson becomes painter Dora Carrington as she falls for literary author Lytton Strachey even if he has confessed his homosexuality, turning the relationship into something complicatedly platonic. Once again Emma demonstrates restrain and strength in a character tailored to her talent.
Sense and Sensibility
(1995) Directed by Ang Lee
As older sister Elinor Dashwood faces the prospect of being poor after her father dies leaving his wife and three daughters without an inheritance to survive, Emma is the centerpiece that keeps the drama together (not only for having written the screenplay that made her an Oscar recipient). Elinor is resigned and a realist, while her younger sister Marianne (played by Kate Winslet) is the hopeless romantic.
(1984) Directed by Kenneth Brannagh
I was uncertain of which one of performances in a Brannagh’s film would be her most representative. I really enjoyed her double character in ‘Dead Again’ and the carefree freshness of her Beatrice in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is delirious, but I finally settled for the film that brought her to America. The reason? She only appears in the last quarter of the film and her majestic performance is a perfect counterpart to the violence and bloodshed of the first part of the film. She manages to change our feelings in a very dramatic film and to bring a side of Henry V we hadn’t seen before.