What makes Emma Thompson such a reassuringly good actress?

Emma Thompson in 2017.Image Contour by Getty Images

She is nervous when the sex worker she ordered is standing at the door of her hotel room. Still, retired teacher Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) keeps a firm grip on the encounter. She paid for this and she knows what she wants: an orgasm, for the first time in her life.

the feature film Good Luck to You, Leo GrandeWritten by Katy Brand and directed by Sophie Hyde, it revolves around the sex life of an older woman and it’s quite groundbreaking. It is rare that a woman over 50 is the main character in a film, that she ends up in bed – for a few heavy sex scenes, that is – is very rare at all.

The 63-year-old Emma Thompson stripped naked, with no stand-in, no filters or trickery. Brave, that’s what it’s called soon – and yes, it is. The British actress does what few movie stars of her age want or dare: she shows that time takes hold of everything. What’s more, she shows that that’s not a bad thing. “It’s such a waste of time worrying about what your body looks like,” she said in several interviews. “You don’t have to love it, but you can accept it.”

Language sense

Not that it’s easy, she added immediately. The ideal image can be ridiculously compelling. Thompson also suffers from it. In an interview with the magazine people, earlier this year, she shared how many times she was told she was overweight. That started after she was 30, when she decided to stop starving herself. “I don’t think many people realize how thin most actresses are in real life. It’s kinda… unreal.’

Thompson has nothing unreal, unless it is her talent. Not only is she a formidable actress, she also writes: screenplays, columns and children’s books. Thompson received an Oscar for both works: she won one in 1993 for her acting in Howards Endand three years later she won the Oscar for best screenplay, for the Jane Austen film adaptation Sense and Sensibility. A hitherto unique double.

In his memoirs The college years Actor and comedian Stephen Fry, who met Thompson at Cambridge University, describes her as a born star. When he first sees her act, she doesn’t seem like a beginner in anything: ‘Her voice, her movements, her sharpness, ease, attitude, humor. It seemed as if, like the goddess Athena, she had come into the world in full armor.’ She could also sing and dance, Fry writes with some jealousy – he couldn’t do either himself. “We had no doubt that Emma would become famous. Absolutely not.’

Thompson’s parents were actors, which may explain the innate qualities. She got her voice from her mother, the Scottish Phyllida Law: the same sound, the same clear diction. Her father, Eric Thompson, made a well-known children’s program for the BBC. Still, Thompson did not go to drama school, but studied English literature. In Cambridge she was in the theater company Footlights with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. She mainly played comedic sketches, also in the years after her study, and broke through with a lead role in the musical written by Fry Me and My Girl.

Anyone who tries to analyze Thompson’s strengths as an actor quickly arrives at what she already displayed during her student days: musicality, comic timing and a sense of language. The latter is perhaps the reason that she can be seen so often in literary film adaptations. For a while, almost no British costume drama could be made without Thompson in it—always a good sign, by the way. Howards End, The Remains of the Day (both directed by James Ivory) and Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee) are the highlights, all three are around thirty years old and still just as impressive.

wisest sister

They also provided a blueprint for a type of character Thompson would often play. In Howards End, after the novel by EM Forster, she played the sensitive, smart but above all very practical Margaret, who marries a wealthy prolet because it is convenient. In Sense and Sensibility she was, again, the oldest and wisest sister in the family: the one who prefers reason to romance, who would rather suffer in silence than cry out. Also in The Remains of the Day she played a woman who keeps her feelings to herself. The patient, capable housekeeper Mary, like Anthony Hopkins played butler Stevens, doesn’t dare step out of the role she sees fit, even if her heart says otherwise.

Rational and determined, so are almost all of the women Thompson plays. Remember the cool judge in The Children Act (2017), an excellent drama based on the book by Ian McEwan: she sees her marriage falling apart and throws herself into her work. Look at the funny but way too strict talk show host who uses words as a weapon, in the comedy late night (2019). Or watch as a sick language professor in Mike Nichols’ beautiful television drama White (2001) tries to maintain her humor and dignity as she slowly languishes.

Thompson always exudes a reassuring self-assurance, a resolute cheerfulness, even when playing a character torn by nerves or grief. Let me do this, she seems to say. Don’t worry, I’ll bring this to a close. Also in what is probably her most famous movie scene (the one in the Christmas classic Love Actually, in which she finds out her husband is cheating and runs to the bedroom to gather herself), she excels in determination. The tears are wiped away eagerly, because her children’s Christmas experience must not be ruined.

That’s how you trust her as an actress: as soon as she comes into the picture, you can breathe a sigh of relief — never think of her going to blow up the atmosphere. She usually takes the film to a higher level, no matter how short she is in it. Putting the public at ease like this is a lot less easy than it seems.

She can best play someone who is the opposite of firm. In the tragicomedy Peter’s Friends From 1993, directed by her then-husband Kenneth Branagh, Thompson played the fluttering, chaotic Margaret, a sweet but rather helpless thirty-something who lets self-help books tell her how to live. Thompson gave her a believable dose of naivety.

Still, the less fragile roles suit her better. In fact, Thompson is the self-help book among actresses – also in her private life, it seems. According to director James Ivory (who provided her with important acting advice: never sigh and cry as little as possible) she is just as sensible and calm as she appears. “A lot of actors are anxious and insecure, which they try to hide with all kinds of weird behavior, always thinking they’re not good enough,” Ivory said in 2019. The New York Times. “None of that with her.”

Good female roles

Thompson isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She is an environmental activist and makes her voice heard in other areas as well. She was not thanked when she described England in the run-up to the Brexit referendum as a ‘grey old island, filled with pie and misery’. Despite this, she was knighted in 2018, so that she now goes through life as Dame Emma Thompson. It caused a small riot, because during the royal ceremony she wore white sneakers under her suit, “very expensive”, she said herself. She also wore a button that read ‘equal pay’.

For women, there is still a lot to improve in the film industry, says Thompson. Starting with the salary, but also with the roles that are written for them. She refuses boring, supporting roles on principle, but she doesn’t like the opposite either, she told this month in an interview with Vanity Fair. Suddenly, from a sort of feminist ideal, women are only allowed to be tough and strong. Thompson: ‘First we were in the kitchen, now we have to drive a tank, and there’s nothing in between. We still haven’t fully explored what it means to be a woman in movies.”

Nancy Stokes out Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is such a woman from the in-between area: a fairly ordinary, not very nice widow, who, after a decent life, stands up for herself. The former religion teacher is strict but also has a sense of humor. For Thompson, the film is an excellent opportunity to show that there is also a life for female actors after 60, without all kinds of emergency measures to look eternally young.

If anyone can prove it, it’s her. Thompson only seems to get better with age. She can still live for another thirty years, in the hope that beautiful film roles will also be written for elderly ladies in the future. If necessary, she will undoubtedly write those roles herself. good luck to youEmma Thompson.

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