From schoolmarm to romcom nude, the 7 best Emma Thompson movie roles
No one accepts an award like Emma Thompson.
That was evident on the 1996 awards tour for "Sense and Sensibility," which earned the actor every trophy for her screenplay and required her to give many speeches. It's a mystery how people pace those run-ups to the Oscars — do you give better speeches as the awards get bigger? Do your dresses get more sequins? But Thompson gracefully produced one charming thank-you after another, culminating in perhaps the wittiest and most self-possessed speech by a screenwriter in the history of the Academy Awards.
Although it's been a quarter-century since Thompson's last Oscar run, she earned five nominations in a span of four years in the 1990s. That those five nods came in three categories (actress, supporting actress, adapted screenplay) is a key to her appeal. After all, she seems game for just about anything. Small role with a very big accent in the dumb "Last Christmas?" Sure. Supporting part in "In the Name of the Father" when she was at the peak of her leading-lady years? Voice of authority in the action franchise "Men in Black?" Singing teapot in "Beauty and the Beast"? Funniest of the special-guest-star teachers in the "Harry Potter" movies? Random one-off as Sam's ex on "Cheers"? Why not?
Her versatility may be attributable to the English repertory theater tradition, where it's common to play a lead in one play while taking a cameo in another. Certainly, it requires a sympathetic agent: If Tom Cruise tells his people, "Don't send me scripts where I don't save the world," Thompson must tell hers, "If I get to do a Serbian accent or juggle, I don't care how low the pay is."
And it has to do with the curiosity that makes every Thompson performance — lead or walk-on, a role she wrote for herself or a barely recognizable appearance as a drunk hippie in Noah Baumbach's "The Meyerowitz Stories" — memorable.
The animating force behind her work on screen is usually, "I wonder if I can pull that off?" She pulls it off spectacularly in these seven movies.
"Love Actually" (2003)
It's more moving to see someone try not to cry than cry, and no one has done that better than Thompson. I'm not even sure I like the movie, but I love it when the gift of a Joni Mitchell CD reveals that Thompson's husband (Alan Rickman) is having an affair (he gave the jewelry she knows he purchased to his seductive assistant). Trying to hide devastation, Thompson emphasizes order-restoring details: straightening a coverlet, slapping her own leg. The soundtrack usage of Mitchell's "Both Sides, Now," which is both the husband's gift and a lyrical reminder that love will look different forever, makes it even more heartbreaking.
"Sense and Sensibility" (1995)
Restraint is associated with many Thompson — and, indeed, English — performances. So she's well cast here as practical Elinor Dashwood, the "Sense" of the title. The genius in the reserved way Thompson adapted and Ang Lee directed Jane Austen's tale (the proposal we anticipate for the whole movie happens off-screen!) comes when the emotions Elinor has declined to express for two hours pour out in a gasping, sobbing torrent. (Fun fact: Thompson married Greg Wise, who played the rake who wounds her "Sensibility" sister, played by Kate Winslet.)
"An Education" (2009)
I'll take all the Thompson I can get, but I sometimes prefer a small blast of her that enlivens a movie. That happens in the "Brideshead Revisited" remake, "Burnt," and this comedy/drama. Watch how much she accomplishes in a couple of crisp sentences when her headmistress lectures a student (Carey Mulligan). Thompson's subtle pauses, posh accent and strategic eye contact reveal that her character's warnings about exploitative men come from experience, that she understands the appeal of a bad boy and that — although she's bound to steer Mulligan away from that bad boy — the headmistress is not sure the life choices she made were the right ones.
"Saving Mr. Banks" (2013)
Thompson has said that P.L. Travers, who wrote "Mary Poppins" and did not want Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to make a movie version, is her best part. In this underrated comedy/drama about the uneasy relationship between Travers and Disney, she honors that with acting that gradually uncovers why Poppins was so important to prickly Travers.
"The Tall Guy" (1989)
The trailer for Thompson's movie debut thinks Jeff Goldblum is the star of this romcom, which includes a wicked Andrew Lloyd Webber parody in the form of a musical based on "The Elephant Man." But the real find is Thompson, hilarious as a free (and naked) spirit who disabuses Goldblum of the notion that Brits are staid and sexless.
"The Children Act" (2018)
The movie's distributor didn't know what to do with a drama that had awards potential written all over it but vanished so quickly that even her fans may have missed her towering work. She's a compassionate British judge deciding whether to force medical care on a dying teenager whose family is refusing it on religious grounds. Deliberately structured as two movies in one (the judge's relationship with her husband, played by Stanley Tucci, is in crisis), the adaptation of Ian McEwan's bestseller is an insightful look at professional and personal morality.
"Howards End" (1992)
Thompson has said membership in a college improv group (along with future luminaries Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry) helped her find her identity as a performer. I think it was also responsible for the spontaneity and honesty she brings to every performance. Although she's classically trained and has taken on iconic roles in Shakespeare and this E.M. Forster adaptation, which earned her an Oscar for best actress, there's nothing studied or forced in her complicated reaction to a marriage proposal that's almost the exact opposite of the one in "Sense and Sensibility."
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