Emma Thompson: Screen angel

The actress who was married to Kenneth Branagh was pretty good. But her performance in this weekend's television event - the adaptation of Tony Kushner's 'Angels in America' - confirms her as an actress to rank alongside her co-stars Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. But is she too good to last?
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This tribute to an actress appears half-way through the British presentation of her latest work - what you might almost think of as her comeback. So the most immediate task is to hail the work itself, a six-hour television production of Tony Kushner's play Angels in America, commissioned and persevered with by Home Box Office, not just the most enterprising cable channel in business today, but the model of what a modern film studio might be - daring in its material, spectacular in its effects, yet economical in its practice. No one watching Angels in America is going to complain of lack of production values, and I can tell you that on a theatre screen it is not just burnished and radiant, but as beautiful as any current movie. The cast - with Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Jeffrey Wright and Mary-Louise Parker as well as Emma Thompson - speaks for itself.

The director is Mike Nichols, and no one seems the least deterred about showing us a subject that is frightening, as basic as cell structure, and devoted to our sexual confusion.

Angels in America is an event, and one glorious aspect of it is the figurehead of Emma Thompson as a thoroughly carnal angel, just a little nervous in case her wires may drop her (Nichols and Kushner know that there are special effects all the lovelier for being underlined), and buxom, sisterly, maternal and a lover all in one. Ms Thompson has never been one to fuss with her age in public, and she was never a stunning vision as a young woman. (Remember her first impact in Fortunes of War, 1987, when she was still in her late 20s.) Never mind, coming up on 45, the maturity that was always her (in the range of her understanding) is now ravishing. It's easy enough in the context of Angels in America for the angel to be a trumpet, a messenger and a promise of hope. But a sexpot, too! It's the best advertisement for heaven next to San Francisco.

I said a comeback (coupled with her very sharp portrait of another brave wife in Richard Curtis's Love Actually). And it's a matter of plain fact that by her own standards of unswerving, hard work, she has been away - and at just that turning point, 40, when many actresses waver.

There had been previously two main periods in Emma Thompson's work: with Kenneth Branagh and without. When they were a couple, a marriage, and a hoped-for long-lived theatre company, they did Fortunes of War, Henry V, Look Back in Anger together, plus a lot of theatre and such perilous movie ventures as Dead Again, Peter's Friends and Much Ado About Nothing. What might they not do, innocent admirers asked, missing the most obvious test - that of breaking up because they were both so lovable and talented, and both set fair in such a competitive world.

Branagh has never been the same again, I fear, which is hardly fair: his Heydrich in the television film about the Wannsee conference in 1943, Conspiracy, is magnificent. But with their separation, Emma Thompson soared. In the mid-1990s, she became a regular at awards shows and a fascinating actress who never boasted of her own great craft. She was in Howards End; outstanding paired with Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day; the lawyer in In the Name of the Father; cheerfully with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Junior; never better than as the suicidal artist in Christopher Hampton's neglected film Carrington; as Elinor Dashwood in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, for which she also did the screenplay; and as a kind of Hillary Clinton in Mike Nichols' Primary Colors, where she had to run through every variation on the pained looks of a wife who thinks she is being betrayed - but will still vote for the unzippered jerk as president.

That was 1998. A year later, Thompson gave birth to her daughter, Gaia. The father was Greg Wise, an actor some years her junior, who had played John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. It's not that Thompson refused all work for the next few years, but she plainly dedicated herself to being with a young child and working out the relationship with Wise - they eventually married last summer. This is as much in character as a sign of healthy attitudes, for Thompson had always testified to the tender upbringing she had from her father Eric (creator of the Magic Roundabout show) and her mother, the actress Phyllida Law - they played mother and daughter in a movie, The Winter Guest, directed by Alan Rickman, one of Thompson's best friends.

Still, from 1998 to 2002 she had only three credits: a small part in the film Maybe Baby; a voice-over in the animated picture Treasure Planet; and another television job, for HBO and Mike Nichols again, in a performance that rivals Carrington - the cancer patient (or impatient) Vivian Bearing in Wit. After that, she took a leading role in Christopher Hampton's Imagining Argentina, one among many small parts in Love Actually, and then a fantastic trio in Angels in America - not just the Angel, but Nurse Emily and a figure hunched over a small fire on an urban wasteland, identified in the cast list as "Homeless Woman". When I saw Angels in preview in America, without credits, I thought the vagrant was a man, yet I knew it had to be Emma Thompson. There was no one else in the movie - not even Meryl Streep - who could abandon herself with such lack of show or show-off. Tune in tonight for more of the same.

What next? Well, the only announced project is her Professor Sybill Trelawney in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which promises a welcome shot of comedy for that series. After that? Emma Thompson will be in her late 40s, in a show-business world that generally regards middle-aged people as unwholesome. Just because she has wit and talent enough to run rings round younger players does not mean that the world will insist on starring her in every production. She will have to insist - and it may be that she has much too much respect for real life, to say nothing of pleasure in family, to make that her main task. Only the other day I noted that Vanessa Redgrave was not just the voice of a Great Dane in an animated film. Unless my ears deceived me, she was also doing the dog's voice in a commercial for dog food. It might be that Emma Thompson needs to go back on the stage - and that might fit better with family life. Hedda Gabler? Chekhov? Blanche DuBois, even? Or, better still, some movies that really ran with her beauty, her mischief and her energy. For myself, I have seen her play the wronged wife far too many times for the good of that archetype. It's about time she was a criminal wife, so attractive that no man could ever blame her or give her up. I mean a woman entirely without guilt or grief, a life force, gobbling up lesser mortals, cracking jokes and making sure that the world ran according to her plan. Not just an angel, but the woman in charge, the mistress of ceremonies, running the whole show and reaching up a hand if ever a wire breaks. The confinement of Emma Thompson in "good woman" has got to stop.