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Emma Thompson just broke my heart

The actress believes romantic love is a ‘myth’; that it is ‘actually quite dangerous’. How could she?

Victoria Richards
Wednesday 22 February 2023 10:54 GMT
Related: Dame Emma Thompson became ‘seriously ill’ each time she attended the Academy Awards

The writer Anne Carson once said: “When you are falling in love it is always already too late: dēute, as the poets say.”

Not so, for Emma Thompson. The actress who I had come to think of as a bastion of love, actually (yes, I know) has broken my heart. She believes romantic love is a “myth”; that it is “actually quite dangerous”. That, “if anyone thinks that happy ever after has a place in our lives, forget it”. How could she? Of all people? It is the ultimate betrayal.

It is impossible, in my humbly poetic opinion, to deny the existence of romantic love. It’s like denying air!

If you think I’m over-reacting, then you’d be right – that’s entirely the point. The whole joy of romance, of falling in love, is in the over-reaction. It’s in the uncomfortable recollection of Tom Cruise, jumping on Oprah’s sofa to declare his love for Katie Holmes; it’s in the cringe-worthy honesty of Harry and Meghan’s Netflix series, where they talk about their first date; it’s in the fact we were all glued to the red carpet coupling of Paul Mescal and Phoebe Bridgers, from the moment sparks flew in public – online – to the devastating denouement that prompted some fans to declare: “Phoebe Bridgers and Paul Mescal cannot break up, they are my emotional support relationship’’.

We are, largely, in love with love – Emma Thompson must know that better than anyone. Just look at her career: from Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, where she fell for Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferrars; to the unspoken love between Miss Kenton and Mr Stephens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day; to playing a retired school teacher who hires the – ahem – company of a young sex worker in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande; to her new role in What’s Love Got To Do With It? (and of course, Richard Curtis’s Love Actually, surely up there with one of the most popular British romcoms of all time). Thompson is the poster girl for romance.

Her popularity speaks for itself – for there’s little more than captures our collective, wistful imagination than love. Uniquely, we’ve likely all felt it, whether reciprocated or unrequited: that heady, intoxicating feeling when you can’t get enough of another person; when you could (quite literally) eat them. When you’d happily serve yourself up on a dinner plate ready to be eaten. (Just me?)

Thompson, however, wants us to be cautious; which is futile for anyone in love. She told the Radio Times podcast: “We really do have to take [romantic love] with a massive pinch of salt. To think sensibly about love and the way it can grow is essential if we’re going to live long lives.”

She knows what she’s talking about, of course – she has spoken publicly about how her marriage to the actor Kenneth Branagh broke down over his affair with Helena Bonham-Carter, and said that it actually inspired her performance as a jilted wife in Love Actually’s most famous scene. Thompson, who has been married to her Sense and Sensibility co-star Greg Wise for 20 years, also said the Disney concept of “happy ever after” doesn’t exist. But I, for one, am heartbroken.

I can’t help but defend the right of romantic love to exist – and if you want a very modern example of it, just look at Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly. Like them, loathe them or think they’re unhinged; they are, still, a perfect example of that peculiarly unique and “all-consuming” romantic craving. Where there is heady and intoxicating romantic love, there is intensity, and the pair certainly have that. They have also seemingly stepped into the footsteps of comparable dark romantics Angelina and Billy Bob Thornton; whose tempestuous relationship became famous for their shared blood vial necklaces (Fox and Kelly reportedly drank each other’s blood to celebrate their impending marriage). Kelly even gave Fox a thorned engagement ring – and I get it. I want one.

Still, I understand (I think) what Thompson is saying – I just don’t like it. She means, of course, that the exquisite nature of dizzying romance is ephemeral; that it doesn’t last precisely because it’s bright and burns red hot and cannot possibly sustain itself. But that’s what makes it so beautiful. We may know (or even hope, for there’s nothing quite so destabilising as being in love) that our feelings may well “settle down”; that the person we gaze at with animalistic lust today may well become the person we want to cuddle down and watch a TV box set with tomorrow. But that’s okay. That’s beautiful, too.

Psychologists tell us love has three different stages: anthropology professor Helen Fisher describes this unique process as careering from lust (driven by testosterone and oestrogen), to attraction (when these feelings intensify, driven by dopamine and serotonin – and you begin to crave and miss your lover), to attachment.

Look. We all know romantic love “doesn’t last”. That it changes. But that’s precisely what makes it so special. You can’t bottle it and you can’t predict it and you (arguably) can’t control it. You can’t force it, either. It happens to you, you don’t happen to it. In this way, we are all at love’s mercy. That’s how the heart works. But in my opinion, we need to have more – not less – respect for romantic love. Rather than scoffing at it or pretending it doesn’t exist, we should have reverence for it. Respect. Even awe.

Partners may change across our all-too-brief lifetimes; divorce and breakups are as much a part of life as death and taxes. But romantic love, if we are lucky enough to find it, for however long it lasts, is delicious. Dēute.

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