Emma Thompson (1959-) b. London, England.
A graduate of Cambridge University Footlights and the University’s first all-female troupe, Woman’s Hour, Thompson worked in theatre in the early 1980s with Kenneth Branagh‘s Renaissance Theatre Company. She appeared first on television in 1987, playing a spiky Glasgow waitress in John Byrne’s six-part drama, Tutti Frutti, a wonderfully surreal and tragic musical comedy of Scottish rock ‘n roll and masculinity. Thompson’s performance was arresting: a star quality touched with a dangerous eccentricity, a characteristic that has been masked by the rather more predictable good taste with which she has come to be associated. In the same year, she played opposite Kenneth Branagh in the television adaptation of Olivia Manning’s The Fortunes of War, a casting which began a screen association both with Branagh and with classic adaptation.
Moving into cinema, she played Katherine to Branagh’s Henry in his Henry V (1989) and Beatrice to Branagh’s Benedick in his Much Ado About Nothing (1993). It is not clear whether they were haunted by shades of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh or were courting them, but the connection was inescapable and they became for a brief time a golden couple for the upwardly mobile. Independently of Branagh, Thompson’s association with quality adaptations led to an Oscar for Best Actress in the Merchant-Ivory Howard’s End (1992), an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in the Merchant-Ivory The Remains of the Day (1993), a Golden Globe award for Best Screenplay, an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and an Oscar for Best Screenplay for her own adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (1995).
Her attempts at versatility have met with less critical or popular approval: given her own BBC television show at an early stage in her career, Thompson (1988), she paid the price of hubris and over-exposure; Branagh’s Dead Again (1991) and Peter’s Friends (1992) won her few fans; and her appearance in In the Name of the Father (1993) seemed worthy but miscast. The intelligence of her acting is beyond doubt. Her problem will be to resist the narrowing of her range to the English virtues of quality and good taste that Hollywood rewards, going beyond mere versatility to rediscover some of the earlier danger.
Returning to period dramas, Thompson followed up with back-to-back starring roles – first in the biopic Carrington (1995), which cast her in the title role of the Bloomsbury painter Dora Carrington, then in Ang Lee’s adaptation of a Jane Austen’ Sense and Sensibility (1995) – the film that won Emma Thompson an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Thompson’s subsequent acting roles became more low-key and mostly support characters. Following the gripping political satire Primary Colors (1998) and the multi-stranded thriller The Judas Kiss (1998), Thompson turned out in the mediocre romantic comedies Maybe Baby (2000), written and directed by Ben Elton, and another cynical Richard Curtis romcom, Love Actually (2003), albeit one with a star-studded ensemble cast.Sandwiched between turns as the prescient but preoccupied Professor Sybil Trelawney in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) was a return to lead roles, as she took on the role of the eponymous childminder Nanny McPhee (2005) in the quirky children’s fable adapted by Thompson from the Christianna Brand book series. She reunited with Dustin Hoffman in the middling romantic comedy, Last Chance Harvey (2008), a story of Anglo-American middle-aged love.