Emma Thompson: Nanny knows best - especially when it comes to picking parts

A medley of hits suggests a star who can do no wrong, but there’s been pain along the way

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The Independent Online

On Facebook this week, a sombre new page appeared. Headed “RIP Emma Thompson”, the text ran: “At about 11am on Wednesday (Oct 23, 2013), our beloved actress Emma Thompson passed away… She will be missed but not forgotten. Please show your sympathy and condolences by commenting on and liking this page.” It quickly became apparent that the page was a cruel and stupid hoax, but not before it had attracted one million “likes”. On Thursday, the actress’s spokesman posted a statement explaining that, like Mark Twain’s, reports of her demise were premature. “She is alive and well,” it read. “Stop believing everything you read on the Internet.”

That smack on the wrist is very Emma Thompson. Along with her natural outspokenness and transparent intelligence, a note of nanny-knows-best can often be heard in her delivery. You can imagine her as a splendid nanny in another life, quelling rebellion in nursery or dining-room with firmness and humour. The role suits her. One of her most popular screen incarnations is Nanny McPhee who, in two films scripted by and starring Ms Thompson, magically turns up to transform the lives of a widower’s nine children. And she was out on the red carpet this week at the London Film Festival, presenting her new film, in which she plays the creator of the most famous nanny of all – PL Travers, author of Mary Poppins.

Saving Mr Banks documents the battle-cum-charm-offensive waged by Walt Disney (Hanks) to buy the film rights to Travers’s book. Purse-mouthed, furrow-browed, and cross as a bag of weasels, Travers counters Disney’s abundant quiver of wooing techniques and listens with scornful incredulity to the film-makers’ plans. “I know what he’s going to do to [Mary],” she wails to her agent. “She’ll be cavorting and… twinkling.” The film charts the gradual thawing of her heart and the dark family secrets that prompted the arrival of Mary P in her imagination.

The critics haven’t all been kind to the Disney-sanctioned and, indeed, Disneyfied version of the story (“Sanitised and disingenuous… a whitewash” said The Independent) but they all loved Thompson. “A mesmerising and droll performance” said The Times. “Her bravura performance effectively dominates the film,“ said the Daily Telegraph. “Pitching her delivery somewhere between Nanny McPhee and Miss Jean Brodie, Thompson perfectly embodies Travers’s air of disapproval and distaste.” “In a part once mooted for Meryl Streep,” noted the Hollywood Reporter, “Emma Thompson takes charge of the central role of the waspish PL Travers with an authority that makes you wonder how anybody else could ever have been considered.”

After a (for her) comparatively quiet period over the last five years, Emma Thompson is back, firing on all cylinders. Instead of having walk-on parts in sequels (Men in Black 3, Harry Potter 7) or doing voiceover duty (Queen Elinor in the Pixar animation Brave), she’s seizing major roles. She has completed two other movies, awaiting release dates. Love Punch was shown at the Toronto Film Festival. In it she co-stars with Pierce Brosnan, Celia Imrie and Timothy Spall, in a comedy in which a divorced couple (Thompson and Brosnan) plan a jewel heist to revenge themselves on the tycoon whose financial impropriety scuppered their pensions. And in Effie, scheduled for next spring, Thompson has written a drama about Euphemia Gray, the model who married John Ruskin and appalled him on their wedding night by possessing pubic hair. And no, Thompson does not, at 54, play the hapless Effie; she has second billing as Lady Eastlake.

Amidst all this activity, Thompson also displays her remarkable skill at showing up in the news agenda at around the release-date a new film. Time magazine this week ran a front-page story about Prince Charles (“The Forgotten Prince”) in which 50 of his close friends were interviewed about him. Thompson revealed that dancing with the prince is “better than sex.” She went on – “There is a long history of relationships between Princes of Wales and actors – not just actresses, not just the rude relationships as Charles would say, though God knows I’ve tried. He wasn’t having any of it.”

So she once propositioned the Prince of Wales. Could Ms Thompson do any more to announce herself as British acting royalty?

She was born into an acting family. She adored her father, Eric Thompson, an actor and the mastermind behind The Magic Roundabout, and suffered from depression after he died in 1982. She and her mother, Phyllida Law, were very close, and have acted together in Peter’s Friends, The Winter Guest and Much Ado about Nothing. Her sister Sophie is also an actor; they joined forces in a TV comedy called Thompson. Emma’s was, by all accounts, a warm, cheerful, creative upbringing. She studied English and, after reading a study of Victorian literature called The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, had a Eureka moment. She became a feminist, a punk and a stand-up comic, in the mould of Lily Tomlin.

At Newnham College, Cambridge, she was invited to join the Footlights troupe by Martin Bergman, its president. There she met Hugh Laurie (whom she dated for a while) and Stephen Fry. In 1980, by then vice-president, she co-directed the first-ever all-woman Footlights review, Women’s Hour.

Early success came in theatre and TV: she starred with Robert Lindsay in a stage remake of the flapper comedy Me and My Girl, doing “The Lambeth Walk” every night even while grieving for the death of her father; and as Robbie Coltrane’s girlfriend in a BBC Scotland drama called Tutti Frutti. In 1987 she co-starred in The Fortunes of War, adapted from the trilogy of novels by Olivia Manning. Her co-star was a talented and ambitious young thespian called Kenneth Branagh. They fell in love and, together, became British acting royalty, though Branagh especially sought to distance himself from the phrase.

Branagh formed the Renaissance Theatre Company. Thompson starred in three of his Shakespeare productions, on screen in Henry V, on stage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and (playing the Fool) in King Lear. By now, however, she was making a name in commercial films. Her debut was playing the stern-but-sexy nurse girlfriend of Jeff Goldblum in The Tall Guy, directed by Mel Smith. She and Branagh acted together in Dead Again (he directed) about an amnesiac. It was top of the US box office for two weeks.

A period of big hits and transatlantic acclaim followed. Her role as Margaret Schlegel in Howards End, the 1992 Merchant Ivory film of EM Forster’s 1910 novel, drew rave reviews. In a starry cast that included Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins, she gave, said the critics, “the film’s guiding performance”. It was a surprise hit everywhere, and picked up nine Oscar nominations. One was for Best Actress. Thompson won it. She was a global star overnight. But more was to follow.

Playing Gareth Peirce, defence lawyer of the Guildford Four, in the harrowing IRA drama In the Name of the Father offered a perfect showcase for her passionate intelligence. Playing the housekeeper opposite Anthony Hopkins’s buttoned-up butler in The Remains of the Day, she was heartbreakingly restrained. But she was suffering from heartbreak herself. Her marriage to Branagh was in terminal disarray.

Speaking on Desert Island Discs in 2010, Thompson described her acute depression – how she was living alone, living in an old black dressing gown that Branagh had left behind, trying to write a screenplay of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. “I don’t think I did stay sane,” she told Kirsty Young. “I should have sought professional help. Divorce. Ghastly, painful business. I used to crawl from the bedroom to the computer and then I was all right. Sense and Sensibility saved me from going under in a very nasty way.” So did the actor Greg Wise, whom she met when they co-starred in the 1995 Ang Lee film of the Austen novel. She picked up a second Oscar for best adapted screenplay – and remains the only person ever to have won Oscars for both acting and writing.

Today she keeps both Oscars in the downstairs bathroom of their home in West Hampstead, London. She and Wise married in 2003 and live with their daughter, Gaia Romilly, and an adopted son, Tindyebwa, a Rwandan orphan and former child soldier. Her career has been, as Kirsty Young once put it, “a study in over-achievement.” And with her bravura display, in Saving Mister Banks, of disapproval, distaste and non-capitulation to charm – all those nanny virtues – this most poignant yet down-to-earth of actresses may be heading for her third Oscar.