The Best of Emma Thompson

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
January 27th, 2014

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The British actress Emma Thompson never ceases to amaze with her ability to immerse herself into her roles with an intensity and depth that is often lacking in feature film performances. With so many great performances, choosing her best films is difficult indeed. The following touches only the surface of her best work.

Although Emma Thompson began her career as an actress in 1982, she first came to international attention 10 years later when she starred in "Howard's End." This film tells a grand story about changing social classes in England and was written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and directed by James Ivory. Playing an independent-minded young woman Margaret Schlegel, Thompson serves as the heart of the film, playing opposite Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave. Her quietly ironic performance won her the Academy Award for Best Actress, as well as the Golden Globe and BAFTA awards.

Thompson returned to work with the same production and directing team soon after when she played against Anthony Hopkins again in "The Remains of the Day," also written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and directed by James Ivory in 1993. She was drawn to her role as a housekeeper in the film because her own ancestors had worked as house servants in situations similar to those portrayed in the film. Thompson's portrayal of Miss Kenton was impeccably layered and a perfect foil for the repressed butler played by Hopkins. In particular, the scene in which she attempts to get him to reveal what book he is reading is a masterpiece of subtlety. Thompson received Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for her acting.

Emma Thompson proved she is more than an actress when she wrote the script for 1995's adaptation of Jane Austen's novel "Sense and Sensibility," directed by Ang Lee. She also played the lead, Elinor Dashwood, in the movie, and was lauded for her delicate and vulnerable portrayal. Her screenplay was sharp, elegant and witty, with many invented scenes that brought out the humor of the story in a way that modern audiences could easily appreciate. Thompson won the Academy Award and Golden Globe for her screenplay, and the movie also won best film awards from BAFTA and the Golden Globes. In addition, Thompson received Best Actress nominations from the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards. She also won the BAFTA Best Actress award.

Emma Thompson played a small but significant role in the ensemble cast of "Love Actually," the 2003 movie written and directed by Richard Curtis which has become a modern Christmas classic. As Karen, Thompson seems at first to be the pragmatic mom who keeps her family running with good humor. Her big moment comes when she sneaks a look at her husband's Christmas present to her, excited to see a surprisingly romantic gift of a gold necklace, only to open a CD on Christmas morning. Her husband, played by Alan Rickman, has instead given the necklace to his assistant. The moments in which Thompson plays out and hides her disappointment are a textbook lesson in great film acting. Thompson won the Best British Supporting Actress award from the London Film Critics for this performance and was also nominated for a BAFTA.

One of Thompson's more recent roles was that of "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers in "Saving Mr. Banks," written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith and directed by John Lee Hancock in 2013. Thompson's rigid, cutting performance stands in contrast to the tendency toward treacle inherent in the source material and pushes the film toward greatness. She walks a careful line in portraying a character who is fundamentally unlikable. Somehow she manages to draw in the audience to understand her, accept her brash behavior and sympathize with her even when she is overtly rude. Thompson won the National Board of Review's Best Actress award for the role, and was nominated for BAFTA, Golden Globe and SAG acting awards as well.

Emma Thompson has displayed a career longevity that is unusual for middle-aged actresses — not surprising when one looks over her superb body of work and realizes how excellent she has been. Anyone interested in digging deeper into Thompson's work should also take a look at her fine performances in "In the Name of the Father," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Stranger Than Fiction," among others, as well as checking out her other screenplay work on the "Nanny McPhee" series. Emma Thompson keeps getting better and better with each film. It is likely that her best performances are still in the future.