Making sense of Miss Thompson's sensibility

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What is it that turns an actress into a movie star? Britain is rich in actresses, perhaps richer than any other country. But we have very few movie stars, performers able to command an audience's attention on the big screen, and as a consequence, command the respect of Hollywood. Emma Thompson does. She has already won one Oscar for her performance as Margaret Schlegel in `Howard's End' and has just been nominated for two more - Best Actress for her performance as Elinor in `Sense and Sensibility' and Best Adapted Screenplay for the same film.

She is not, she would probably agree herself, our finest actress. But the qualities of her acting lend themselves uniquely well to film performance, to its appetite for detail and emotional economy. To see why she is effective on screen is to see what the screen demands before it will magnify the reputation of those who appear on it, rather than simply magnify their faults.

Here we look at three aspects of her art as exemplified in `Sense and Sensibility', and try to to answer the question `What makes Emma work?'

In which our heroine's eyes may widen

"Dearest, do not betray what you feel to everyone present," Elinor urges Marianne, after the latter has been snubbed by Willoughby at the London ball. The etiquette of the screen is precisely the opposite - the actress must betray what she feels to everyone present. She must make visible the interior and invisible passage of her thoughts through a facial semaphore as formalised, in its way, as the fan language of 19th-century ballrooms. Every angle and movement matters. What's more, the face is rarely at rest ("resting" for an actor means unemployed, and they are, after all, at work). For most of the time in life our faces bear inadvertent expressions or inappropriate ones, but on screen this will simply mislead - the message must be correct.

Thompson's face is exceptionally fluent in this language - it is one of the reasons that she is never a dull actress to watch even when not ideally cast. Many come from the established stock of cinematic gestures. If a character is to indicate a sudden surge of interest while looking at something - as Elinor does when she realises that the horseman riding towards the cottage is not Colonel Brandon but Edward Ferrers - the moment will be signalled by a brief narrowing of the eyes, the film equivalent of a dog pricking up its ears. When her emotional carriage hits a pothole she flicks her eyes suddenly sideways or downwards - the conventional cinematic signal for momentary distraction. In real life people rarely do either of these things but they remain, within the conventions of the screen, naturalistic gestures.

Thompson has added to the available repertoire with signals that carry her personal copyright; that look of quizzical expectation, eyes widened as if to say "and then?", an expression which suggests unspoken commentary; a sudden intake of breath, held for a moment, then expelled as speech - a device which can be reliably translated by the viewer as "impulse checked by thought"; most characteristic of all a quick upward tuck of the lips to try out a smile, like someone nervously hitching up their clothes. It is clear from Thompson's production diary that Ang Lee, her director, is alert to the shortcuts such signals allow. "Ang's taken to requesting what he calls smirks," she writes. "`Endearing smirk, please' - which I find pretty tricky. `Try rigorous smirk' - even trickier."

The point, that screen truth is built out of conventional symbols, is made with particular force by an exception to the rule. It occurs in one of the crucial scenes in the film, when Lucy Steele confides that she has been engaged to Edward Ferrers for five years, a confession that destroys Elinor's slender hopes. In the world of the fiction this is supremely a moment for "acting", when Elinor must snuff out the authenticity of her face, its freedom, however subtle or modified by manners, to speak for her feelings. Instead she must simulate disinterest, curiosity, even the pleasure of a shared secret.

Thompson, the scriptwriter, unusually resorts to cliche for this emotional shock - "Elinor is frozen to the spot". And Thompson, the actress, achieves the effect by suspending normal operations. Her expression is almost entirely blank - there is the tiniest shiver of the eyelids (discernible only because of cinema's inherent magnification) and the merest flutter at the sternal notch, that triangular depression just below the adam's apple (an unusually expressive feature in any drama featuring low-cut bodices). But compared with the rest of a conscientiously restrained performance, this is a break in transmission - radio silence after the steady traffic of eyebrows, lips, eyes and neck. It breaks the general rule - obeyed almost always in film - that the inaudible will be amplified by the face. It is a silence into which the audience can call its own feelings.

In which, in an instant, she explodes

"In each of her films there's one scene that really stands out," says Christopher Hampton, who worked with Thompson as the director and writer of Carrington, his film about the peculiar Bloomsbury romance between Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey. He can, unsurprisingly, identify the moment in his own film: "There's a scene where she tells Lytton she's pregnant, shot on a staircase. There's a kind of passion which suddenly emerged, which startled Lytton - and Jonathan [Pryce, who played the part] I think."

This might seem like a mild sort of commendation - only one, for goodness sake, after all those weeks of work? But it is, in fact, large praise. Few memories can contain a performance in its entirety, so we select souvenirs instead and it is a relatively rare thing for an actress to be able to supply them so regularly, even more so to do it by acting. Sharon Stone gave us a souvenir in Basic Instinct, but nobody was watching her face.

Thompson's ability to register a great spike on the emotional seismograph of a film tells us something, besides, about the nature of screen acting, a discipline that deprives actors of the conventional assistance of rational sequence, by which a performance can create a crescendo through slow, incremental steps. Cinema, as opposed to theatre, is inherently - technically - disposed to the sudden explosion of feeling. Indeed, its creation has been compared more than once to the traditional description of warfare - hours of waiting interspersed by moments of terror. The ability to render a finished performance as something other than an erratic artillery barrage depends largely on self-denial, a quality which Thompson clearly commands as an actress.

In a film such as The Remains of The Day there was less need for personal control - purged of its performances the film would be penitentially austere, Racine with neither poetry or passion. But, as a film about undeclared love, it presented a different problem - how to create a pivot between mute expectation and unstated disappointment. The solution is a scene in which Thompson's housekeeper attempts to find out what Mr Stephen, the impenetrable butler played by Anthony Hopkins, has been reading in his parlour. She finally prises the book from his hand, one finger at a time - an act of unprecedented intimacy that none the less leads nowhere, indeed, chills the relationship from its barely tepid peak of feeling. Thompson's insistence on having her question answered is absolutely arresting - a risk of impertinence in a situation where impertinence is unthinkable. She "forgets herself", in the Victorian diction - and it shows in the difficulty you would have in connecting this woman with the one seen in previous scenes. Consistency of characterisation is not the point.

In Sense and Sensibility there are a number of explosions - of weepy, hiccuping grief after Edward's return, of trembling vulnerability by her sister's sick bed - but there is one masterful spike: the scene in which Elinor loses her temper with Marianne, after being accused of unfeeling resignation. As it is shot, Elinor, pressed against a door, breaks out of the camera frame with startling speed, an unprecedented physical flurry.

"Elinor finally explodes" is Thompson's screenplay direction and it is a wonderful percussion - her anger at poverty, disappointment and humiliation finally detonated by Marianne's intolerance, releasing the audience's frustrations at the same time. A noisier actress, one more determined to be heard in every scene, would not achieve this. Even Thompson can't, when denied time to accumulate her charge, as in her unconvincing courtroom outburst in Jim Sheridan's In The Name Of The Father. In the right film, though, it works - you have to lean close to catch the whisper of the performance and then, suddenly, she shouts.

In which she remains, inescapably, herself

Criticism of Emma Thompson's screen performances displays a curious feature: more often than not, when critics are disappointed with her performance, they will couch it in terms of "miscasting" or unsuitability of role, a verdict that displaces the blame. But this is a double-edged charity - it might issue from a reluctance to condemn her work but the judgement implies something almost as bad, that her range as an actress is limited. You occasionally hear this suggestion in another form: Thompson is one of those actresses about whom people say, "Oh, she's always just herself in everything."

This accusation can be answered in two ways. First, that it isn't quite true, and second that it betrays a misunderstanding about what acting is in the first place. In Creating a Role, Stanislavski, the father of method acting, rhetorically asks whether, in preparation, he should imagine himself to be his character. The answer is brisk: "Neither my body nor my soul would be taken in by any such obvious deception ... I cannot exchange myself for anyone else. A miraculous metamorphosis is out of the question." In other words, for all the superstitious reverence that surrounds its effects - and even though it can cast a spell - acting is not magic.

At the same time, it is true that there is a Thompsonian persona - one that seems to carry a distinct flavour from film to film. It has the following components: a quality of guarded observation, a sense of burdens patiently sustained (you will often see a private wince of feeling as an extra weight is added), of intellect, morality and feelings kept in reserve. Her best performances allow full play for a look of wary expectation - what the critic Adam Mars-Jones described in his review of Remains of the Day as "a neutral politeness that is nevertheless urging her conversational partner to become a better person in every way". (Its comic form is a kind of fussed anxiety - never neurosis, quite, but its English equivalent, getting flustered).

The persona is well suited to Jane Austen - indeed, it fits Elinor perfectly. When she sits over the meagre accounts of the Dashwoods, bracing the family to a tight economy, you see almost the entire range - an inward resolution, exasperation, endurance converted to a dry humour. But it would be a mistake to think, as some do, that her performance simply represents a canny marriage of existing personality with fictional character - just good casting. Because in the impromptu, unscripted performances that we call real life, Emma Thompson is clearly Marianne, not Elinor. It was Marianne who marched to Trafalgar Square on the first day of the Gulf war and announced that she had been weeping all night, Marianne who appears in Thompson's published production diaries - tearful, emotionally incontinent, impulsive. Thompson even shares Marianne's exasperation with Elinor; "I like her", she writes in her diary, "but I can see how she would drive you mad. She's just the sort of person you'd want to get drunk, just to make her giggling and silly."

Elinor, in other words, is a performance, but it is a performance that issues intimately from Thompson's real character, as all good performances do. At a guess I would say this persona is the invention of a clever girl who lacks self-confidence (Thompson is given to self-deprecation, that beat-you-to-the-punch defence favoured by the vulnerable), a youthful fantasy of detachment from pain, even of a martyred superiority. What you see when she is doing the accounts is how Thompson thinks she might, at her noblest, cope with such circumstances (she could doubtless play a victimiser rather than a victim, but it's notable that she never has). Perhaps it's true that "she's always just herself in everything", but could she be so truthful being anybody else?

Self-image and

critical acclaim

Emma on Emma:

"It's been such a huge ... like having digested something enormous: a scatological metaphor, God knows, or simile, is it?" - on making Sense and Sensibility

"Oh crumbs! We are not used to this sort of thing in England. I've borrowed everything I have got on" - on accepting the Golden Globe Best Actress Award for Howard's End

"Winning the Oscar is a cross between a severe virus and getting married" - of her Howard's End triumph

"It's a little allotment. Above the allotment is a massive, an incredibly beautiful oak tree" - of her lambasted 1988 TV show, Thompson. (The oak tree was Shakespeare)

"I'm sexual in the way that Tony Hopkins is. We can create an erotic charge rather quickly. It's so much more erotic ... that hidden, unspoken, unshown sex, than the full thing."

Others on Emma:

"She has a wonderful sense of humour. Richard Briers and I did a mock interview on the set of Much Ado in which we criticised the Branaghs and brought up all the nastiness that other people had said - how jealous we were of them, how they were so talented and rich and how we loathed them. At the end of it Emma came and threw a bucket of water over us" - Brian Blessed

"I stayed with her and she would put me to bed and tuck me up and give me a kiss at night, and I would do the same for her" - Kate Winslet, Thompson's co-star in Sense and Sensibility, describing on-set relations

"She's not a classic beauty. She's not X-ray thin and she hasn't yet had any ribs removed. She has hips, she has a regular woman's body, and that means she can play almost any woman" - anonymous Los Angeles agent

"At the end of her first term she waltzed in, all flowing scarves and fantastically theatrical - and this was way before she met Ken" - anonymous university contemporary

"She is a remarkable girl and says what she thinks" - Kenneth Branagh

"Eventually I came to realise that Emma is so smart and talented in so many areas that she makes everyone feel inadequate. Have you seen her dance? Have you heard her speak French?" - Lindsay Doran, film producer, in the introduction to the book The Making of Sense and Sensibility

Research by Scott Hughes and Rachel Halliburton

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