Darling, you were wonderful

She may be a mega-star, but there's something about Emma Thompson that gets up people's noses. So when critics greeted her latest film with hoots of derision, there was a distinct whiff of schadenfreude in the air. John Walsh offers his commiserations
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The Independent Culture

It wasn't so much a photograph as a religious painting straight from the High Renaissance - St Emma in Torment. It showed Emma Thompson, her wide, saucerish eyes cast towards Heaven as though in anticipation of martyrdom, her long hands clasped together in silent prayerful supplication, while behind her, a hairy cherub called Christopher Hampton seizes her shoulders as though trying to push her together, to stop her falling apart. It should be a classic aren't-we-wonderful embrace between a film director and his leading lady, but there's something wrong with it. Those upturned, despairing eyes, those clasping hands, make it look more an image of imprisonment - The Prison of Luvviedom.

It was a shock to see the omnicompetent Thompson, the nation's former sweetheart, looking at a loss; more to hear the boos and jeers that had rung out in the cinema only minutes before. The occasion, earlier this week, was the Venice Film Festival, and the screening of Thompson's new movie, Imagining Argentina. Directed by the British playwright Hampton, from a magical realist novel by Lawrence Thornton, it's set in Buenos Aires in 1976 and deals with the fate of the 30,000 "disappeared ones" - critics of the ruling military junta who were suddenly, and terminally, wiped from the face of the earth, never to be seen again. Thompson plays a journalist who writes a controversial article on the desaparecidos and is herself hauled in front of the military police and given a ferocious going over. She is raped and tortured repeatedly, while her husband Carlos (Antonio Banderas) discovers he has the gift of second sight and can intuit what has happened to the invisible dissidents. Instead of responding to the graphic torture scenes with horror and compassion, some of the heartless Venice audience collapsed in laughter and began to jeer and catcall. Observers blame the film's terrible reception on Hampton's decision to shoot the film in English, his inclusion of a scene in which Banderas blithely strums a guitar while his wife and daughter are being brutalised elsewhere, and to end the film, a little crassly, with the on-screen words "Never again!" Some viewers didn't wait for the final credits but walked out with cries of "Shame!"

The ensuing press conference was abruptly terminated after too many hostile questions. "There are still things we should talk about," pleaded Thompson. "I know so many people who have actually been through this [the period of torture and disappearances]. Some of our crew lived through it..."

Hah! You could hear the cries of schadenfreude all the way back to London. Emma Bloody Thompson, people said, remember her? The Julie Andrews of the Eighties, wholesome, sexless and stuck-up. She used to queen it around with that husband of hers, and their entourage of air-kissing lickspittles. She hasn't done a damn thing for years. And now she's a busted flush, jeered at and abused for trying to making a big political statement as a comeback in her stalled career. It's pathetic. Hand me those rotten tomatoes...

Perhaps I overstate, but that's the gist of the murmuring campaign in arts-land. More important than the discovery that there's a new film out that's as much a turkey as the Jennifer Lopez-Ben Affleck disaster Gigli, is the discovery that Emma Thompson can put a foot wrong. For years it's been received wisdom that the Divine Emma will sail unbothered through any reversals or privations, buoyed up by her unshakeable, swishy, head-girl confidence, sure that her charmed life will return to normal at any minute. So is it too early to start saying, "Emma Thompson - where did it all Go Wrong?"

Ten years ago, she was the undisputed queen of British movieland. Married to Kenneth Branagh (whom she met and fell in love with when they were filming Olivia Manning's Balkan trilogy, Fortunes of War in 1987), she had at last escaped from the tendrilous embrace of her husband's many projects - playing the Fool to his King Lear, playing Alison to his Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, appearing in his Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing and the ridiculous faux-noir Dead Again - and had hit Hollywood with a bang. She had picked up an Oscar for Howards End, playing Margaret Schlegel opposite Anthony Hopkins as her older businessman lover and was about to co-star with him again in Remains of the Day, playing the disappointed housekeeper in love with Stevens the butler (Hopkins again). It wasn't just the fact that she'd beaten the whole of Hollywood to win the Best Actress Oscar that mattered, but the style she brought to the occasion. A far cry from the classic Hollywood movie-diva, she sent up the whole occasion as an impossible, ridiculous, who-me-oh-come-off-it farce. As the critic David Thomson wrote: "She was on magazine covers everywhere, yet she remained modest, funny, ironic, a protestant in the High Church of Celebrity. One remembered her shamelessly camp performance of surprise - and the garish frock - when she heard that she had won the Oscar. It was the response, not just of a natural, but of a chronic, subversive comedienne." She has never been a great beauty, yet she managed to captivate America as much as the English press, who happily granted Branagh and her the status of Golden Couple, the über-luvvies whose social acquaintance extended across the whole thespian universe and whose every new project would sign up heavyweight transatlantic stars (Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, Denzel Washington) as though welcoming glamorous foreign ambassadors to the court of an impossibly grand royal couple.

You could hear begrudging sussurations of rhubarb from the media crowd about her meteoric rise to fame and stardom. Without her actor parents, Phyllida Law and Eric (Magic Roundabout) Thompson, they said, she'd never have got anywhere. Without her ritzy pals at the Cambridge Footlights (Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie) she'd never have got chosen for TV roles like Suzi Kettles in Tutti Frutti. Without Branagh, she'd never... But it never sounded very convincing; because Thompson was always going to be a star. She transcends notions of glamour or sexiness (although she played a very sexy nurse in The Tall Guy). She has the Higher Charisma that goes with high intelligence. When you see Emma Thompson act (or meet her, as I did for about 30 seconds after a radio broadcast in 1981) you're hardly aware of her body, her corporeal presence - everything focuses on her handsome face, and the extraordinary liveliness of her gleaming, slightly mad eyes. You feel you would do anything to earn her approval. And Thompson clearly discovered, early on, her power to confer honour, to bestow queenly largesse. When she appeared in Sense and Sensibility, playing Elinor Dashwood to Kate Winslet's Marianne, she dilated at length about her fears, through the filming, of being upstaged by "that Winslet girl" and everybody took it as the ironic blessing by the queen on the young pretender.

She has not, herself, disappeared. In the past five years, Thompson has effectively sidelined acting, to search for something more serious to do with her life. For one thing, she stopped making films for two and half years in order to bring up her daughter by her partner Greg Wise, whom she married earlier this year. For another, she signed up with charities to raise awareness of homelessness (Alone in London), world poverty (ActionAid, for which she became an ambassador in 2001) and the "disappeared" people of Chile - she was asked to write a screenplay about one of them, the folk singer Victor Jara, who was murdered in 1973. Metropolitan cynics may sneer that Thompson's involvement in these areas of concern are sheer bien-pensant attitude-striking by a spoilt ex-actress. But it's an index of her sincerity that she has written several moving articles about her encounters with Aids-ravaged African villages, and did a crash course in Spanish before hanging out with Jara's widow in Santiago.

Her only mistake, I suspect, is trying to harmonise the two sides of her life, to use her considerable clout and leverage to make a film about matters that passionately concern her. She wishes to highlight a dark period in South American history - but she must also (of course) play the suffering heroine, in order to get the movie made. Movie producers remember the powerful, sarcastic, crusading advocate she played in In the Name of the Father. They could rely on Emma playing dark and beleaguered and suffering, couldn't they? Apparently not. Film viewers cannot leave alone the image of Thompson as bearer of a charmed life, spoilt and indulged Queen Bee, double-Oscar winner perhaps, but more memorably that girl with the school-prefect laugh, that hoydenish delivery, the one who never seemed to be acting, just turning on her patrician superiority like a tap. Because it's frankly impossible to imagine Queen Emma having a clue in her own life what it might be like to be tortured or abused, we don't want her to wring our hearts on behalf of the suffering of Argentina. It's all just a bit too saintly, too martyred, to be allowable. She who lived too long in the harsh spotlight of Luvviedom shall perish in the jeers and boos of Hateydom.

How can we be so unfair? Thompson hasn't killed anyone. She has appeared in perhaps too many ho-hum Branagh's-mates productions (like Peter's Friends) and some glumly self-indulgent films (like The Winter Guest) but she remains one of the most luminous and vivid presences of British cinema - playing that rarest on-screen quality, intelligence, and giving it a passion more often seen in stories of revenge or obsession. We should allow her her five-year break from our obsession with her English-governess beauty and her head-girl bossiness and wait to fall for her all over again in this autumn's Love Actually. Spare a thought for Emma's dilemma.