Nationality: British. Born: London, England, 15 April 1959; daughter of the stage and TV director Eric Thompson and the actress Phyllida Law; sister of the actress Sophie Thompson. Family: Married the actor Kenneth Branagh, 1989 (divorced 1996); one daughter with actor Greg Wise, 1999. Education: Studied English literature at Cambridge University. Career: Began acting while at Cambridge with the comedy troupe Footlights, and wrote and performed in an all-woman program of comedy routines, late 1970s; performed as a stand-up comic, then worked on the stage and in British TV, 1980s; appeared on the BBC mini-series Tutti Frutti and Fortunes of War , 1987; created her own six-part TV comedy series, Thompson , co-starring her sister and mother; began performing with Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company, 1988; first appeared on-screen with Branagh in Henry V , 1989; became member of board of advisers, FAHRENHEIT Theatre Company, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1995. Awards: Variety Club Newcomer of the Year, 1987; British Academy Award Best Actress, for Tutti Frutti and Fortunes of War , 1987; New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Actress, National Board of Review Best Actress, Best Actress Academy Award, Best Actress British Academy Award, Best Actress National Society of Film Critics, Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture—Drama Golden Globe, for Howards End , 1992; Outstanding Guest Appearance in a Comedy Series Emmy Award, for Ellen , 1994; Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award, Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published Writers Guild of America Award, New York Citics Circle Best Screenplay, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Screenplay, National Board of Review Best Actress, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role British Academy Award, Best Screenplay Golden Globe, for Sense and Sensibility , 1995; Best Actress Venice Film Festival, for The Winter Guest , 1997.
Films as Actress:
The Winslow Boy (for TV) (as Catherine)
The Tall Guy (Mel Smith) (as Kate Lemon); Henry V (Branagh) (as Katherine of France); Look Back in Anger (Dench—for TV) (as Alison Porter)
Impromptu (Lapine) (as Duchesse d'Antan); Dead Again (Branagh) (as Grace/Margaret Strauss)
Howards End (Ivory) (as Margaret Schlegel); Peter's Friends (Branagh) (as Maggie)
Much Ado about Nothing (Branagh) (as Beatrice); The Remains of the Day (Ivory) (as Miss Kenton); In the Name of the Father (Sheridan) (as Gareth Peirce)
My Father, the Hero ( Daddy Cool ) (Miner) (unbilled cameo as Isabelle); Junior (Reitman) (as Dr. Diana Reddin); The Blue Boy (Murton—for TV) (as Marie)
Carrington (Hampton) (as Dora Carrington); Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee) (as Elinor Dashwood, + sc)
Hospital! (Henderson—for TV); The Winter Guest (Rickman) (as Frances)
Primary Colors (Nichols) (as Susan Stanton); Judas Kiss (Gutierrez) (as FBI Agent Sadie Hawkins)
Maybe Baby (Elton) (as Desiree)
Johnny Hit and Run Pauline (Efrosini Lillios) (pr)
By THOMPSON: book—
The Sense and Sensibility Diaries and Screenplay: The Making of the Film Based on the Jane Austen Novel , New York, 1995.
By THOMPSON: articles—
"Beyond Her Ken," an interview with Time Out (London), 29 April 1992.
Interview with Rachel Abramowitz, in Premiere (New York), April 1992.
"Inheriting the Crown," interview with Jack Kroll, in Newsweek (New York), 4 January 1993.
Interview with Caryn James, in New York Times , 28 March 1993.
"Emma's a Gem," interview with Richard Corliss, in Time (New York), 29 March 1993.
Interview with Robbie Coltrane, in Interview (New York), May 1993.
"Em and Eminence," in Time Out (London), 6 September 1995.
On THOMPSON: books—
Shuttleworth, Ian, Ken & Em: A Biography of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson , New York, 1995.
On THOMPSON: articles—
Jameson, Richard, "The 1989 Movie Revue, II: New Faces of '89," in Film Comment (New York), January 1990.
Miller, Russell, "Emma Thompson's Family Business," in New York Times Magazine , 28 March 1993.
Goodman, Mark, and Sue Carswell, "Much Ado about Emma," in People Weekly (New York), 17 May 1993.
"Emma Thompson: A Close Reading," in New Yorker , 15 Novem-ber 1993.
Krolikowska-Avis, E., "Zlota para," in Kino (Warsaw), Decem-ber 1993.
Abramowitz, R., "Easy Labor," in Premiere (New York), Decem-ber 1994.
Current Biography 1995 , New York, 1995.
Sessums, Keven, "Never Look Back," in Vanity Fair (New York), February 1996.
"Emma Thompson," in Film Review (London), March 1996.
Fuller, Graham, and Claire Monk, "Cautionary Tale / Shtick and Seduction / Sense and Sensibility," in Sight & Sound (London), March 1996.
Thompson, D., and others, "Who's the Best Actress in Hollywood?" in Movieline (Escondido), November 1996.
Friend, T., "Emma's True Colors," in Vogue (New York), March 1998.
* * *
Emma Thompson's versatility seems boundless. With roots in the British theater and an early inclination towards comedy, she also has a gift for developing full-blooded period characters and has performed adroitly in Shakespearean parts, as well. Her acting education began during childhood as the daughter of television and stage director Eric Thompson and actress Phyllida Law. She studied English literature at Cambridge University, where she performed with a troupe called Footlights, which specialized in comedy. After graduation, she appeared as a stand-up comic and did television work before obtaining a starring role in the hit musical comedy revival Me and My Girl. So it is appropriate for Thompson's screen debut to have come in a comedy. She co-starred in The Tall Guy , an underrated farce in which she is the love interest of an American actor in London (Jeff Goldblum) who finds himself cast in a musical version of The Elephant Man (which, when you think about it, is as silly a vehicle for song and dance as Les Misérables ).
While working on Fortunes of War for the BBC, she met actor-director Kenneth Branagh, who cast her as Katherine of France in his screen version of Henry V. They married shortly after the release of Henry V , and Branagh cast her in several very different roles in three of his subsequent films. In Dead Again , she gives a bravura performance in the dual role of a dazed woman tormented by memories of another woman's murder, and a concert pianist (in flashbacks to the 1940s). In the ensemble film Peter's Friends , Thompson has the plum role of Maggie, a spinsterish flake who leaves photos around her apartment so her cat will not forget her. She brings a guileless quality to the role, making it one of the film's stand-out performances. Finally, in Much Ado about Nothing , she stars as Beatrice to Branagh's Benedick. As the real-life husband-wife team traded sex-based jibes in the Bard's poetic format, they brought an energy to the film that touched a broad-based audience. In 1995, Thompson and Branagh announced they were separating, putting an end to a dynamic professional partnership.
It was Howards End , not a Branagh project, that propelled Thompson into the upper ranks of screen personalities. She won an Academy Award for her work in this Merchant-Ivory production of an E. M. Forster tale of the social classes in 1910 England. Thompson portrays a self-reliant woman of no economic means who marries a prosperous man (Anthony Hopkins) whose pleasant veneer hides a heartless nature. Thompson and Hopkins are brilliant together, with both characters storing wells of emotion under the constraints of Edwardian British custom.
She was splendidly re-teamed with Hopkins in another Merchant-Ivory film, The Remains of the Day , set between the two World Wars. Thompson is cast as Miss Kenton, the new housekeeper in the castle of a British lord. Miss Kenton just might be a potential romantic partner to the world's most perfect servant: Stevens (Hopkins), a reserved British butler who is single-mindedly dedicated to his employer. The Remains of the Day essentially is a character study of Stevens, who is steadfastly absorbed in his professional role to the exclusion of all else. Thompson brings intelligence and intensity to a role which might have been little more than a plain-Jane housekeeper in another actress's hands. Her layered interpretation of Miss Kenton helps to give dimension to Stevens's character and brings the film to a disturbing and extraordinary ending.
After earning more critical acclaim as a lawyer defending an accused IRA bomber (Daniel Day Lewis) in the U.S.-Irish production In the Name of the Father , Thompson surprised moviegoers who only were familiar with her Shakespearean and somber characterizations. Sharing the screen with "pregnant" Arnold Schwarzenegger, Thompson garnered laughs as an eminent British cryogenicist in the Hollywood farce Junior. In good spirited fun, she was given an opportunity to spoof the prim image she has gained during her screen career.
She returned to period filmmaking in Carrington , a film with lofty ambitions that is more interesting for what it attempts than what it achieves. It is a based-on-fact story, set in the early twentieth century, that charts the evolution of the deep love between a homosexual British writer, Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce), and a little-known painter, Dora Carrington (Thompson). This is fascinating material, but the film often is too slow-moving and unevenly paced. Still, Thompson (along with Pryce) offers an effectively subtle performance. She next scored one of her biggest hits with Sense and Sensibility , a pleasing, literate adaptation of the Jane Austen novel. Thompson not only stars as Elinor Dashwood but also scripted—and earned an Academy Award for her effort—lending to the material a refreshing contemporary air.
In the mid-1990s, Thompson was at the forefront of contemporary world cinema. Curiously, in the second half of the decade, she either has found herself miscast onscreen or has not won the high-quality, high-profile roles that enabled her to earn screen stardom. She worked with actor-turned-director Alan Rickman and her mother in the deeply personal but little-seen The Winter Guest , featuring the two actresses as mother and daughter. By far her highest-visibility role came in Primary Colors , a pithy satire of Bill and Hillary Clinton that was based on the notorious, best-selling novel. Thompson fell into trouble by taking on the role of Susan Stanton, the Hillary Clinton character. John Travolta, playing her husband, Clintonian presidential candidate Jack Stanton, imitates the real-life president to the point of caricature. Meanwhile, Thompson—who bears a resemblance to Mrs. Clinton—plays her character straight, and thus is overshadowed by Travolta and a strong supporting cast of character actors. Furthermore, her attempt to speak with an American accent is less than successful.
During her film career, Emma Thompson has proven her ability to play all sorts of roles. She can take a character from the pages of literature and make that personality live on-screen, or she can breathe life into broad comedy parts. She has shown audiences many of her talents, and one hopes that she will continue receiving the types of roles that will enable her to display those abilities.
—Audrey E. Kupferberg