Wit is one of those rare English words whose scintillating but slippery side-effects can thrill or enrage in equal measure.
In 2001, when the television producers of Wit, a Pulitzer prize-winning play about a professor of 17th-century metaphysical poetry who is dying of ovarian cancer, began casting for the small screen, they instinctively turned to Emma Thompson. “We wanted to mine every bit of humour we possibly could,” they said. “While the subject is inevitably that of a woman dying of cancer, this is a woman who appreciates humour and wit to her last breath. It’s at once a story of a woman dying, but also coming to terms with what it means to live.”
The producers wanted Thompson’s ability to register irony through a sideways glance, the subtlest twitch of her lips, the merest inflection. They also wanted her raw intelligence. But her daredevil response to the role was wholly in character, too. She decided to shave her head. “I have no attachment to my hair,” she told the New York Times. “It’s just part of the job.”
Last week, in a rhetorical snapshot of Thompson’s incorrigibly dissident approach to her life and work, she landed majestically in the soup when, with a light-hearted answer at a German press conference to promote her new film Alone in Berlin, she veered superbly off message.
In the media firestorm that followed, the MP Conor Burns declared, in terms with which the star will be familiar, that “Ms Thompson is typical of the worst sort of fat-cat luvvie. Most Brits will see the referendum as a celebration of the democracy our ancestors died to defend. Sadly, they also died to allow snooty ladies like Ms Thompson to vent their metropolitan elitist snobbery.” Her offence? She had just described her homeland of Great Britain as a “tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, a cake-filled, misery-laden, grey old island.” (The Sun screeched: “Shut yer cakehole!”)
Thompson was born in London but is proud of her Scottish heritage. The Scots film director Don Boyd, who was also in Berlin, told the Observer: “Emma comes from a close family and good Scottish middle-class stock.”
She has been an insider-outsider since childhood. Her mother, the actress Phyllida Law, is Scottish (holidays were always spent in the Highlands; Thompson has a house in Argyll). Her late father, the English actor Eric Thompson, celebrated as the writer-narrator of The Magic Roundabout, died in 1982, just after Thompson had come down from Cambridge, where she had dazzled fellow students as the outspoken, contrary and fearless entertainer of her generation. Always self-possessed, she attributes some of her drive to this loss. “Were he still alive, I might never have had the space or courage to do what I’ve done,” she has said. “I have a definite feeling of inheriting space and power.”
Actually, Thompson’s showbusiness instincts had flourished in the freezing, nonconformist Fens. She dated the young Simon McBurney, dyed her hair red and buzzed around in dungarees. Another contemporary remembers that “Emma always seemed exceptional. She was outstanding at the ADC [Amateur Dramatic Club]. People talked about her, even then.”
As “Emma Talented” she joined the Footlights, a dramatic in-crowd that included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and the actor Robert Bathurst (“She was Aladdin to my Widow Twankey”), who recalls that she “arrived from Camden with quite a reputation”.
University meteors often burn out. But after her Fry & Laurie collaboration Cellar Tapes won the first Perrier award at the Edinburgh Fringe, Thompson’s career as a comic performer seemed set. “It was like she always knew she would be successful,” remembers another contemporary.
Through much of the 1980s she shared many appearances with Fry & Laurie. In 1985 she made her first bid for independence. Co-starring with Robert Lindsay, she triumphed in a revival of Me and My Girl before impulsively quitting. “If I did the fucking Lambeth Walk one more time,” she said later, “I was going to fucking throw up.”
She had also met Kenneth Branagh, her future husband – another “outsider”, from Northern Ireland – on the set of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War. By the beginning of 1988 she had not only won a Bafta but had been commissioned to write a one-woman show for the BBC. Robert Bathurst remembers her as professionally dauntless: “Emma would always stick her chin out.”
But Thompson flopped. She had yet to refine her gift for winning and holding an audience. These were difficult years. “Ken ’n’ Em” were neither as much to her taste, nor as “golden” as the British media wanted to believe. Behind closed doors, as their marriage deteriorated, Thompson (she later conceded) became clinically depressed. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of her breakup from Branagh, Thompson began to win the sympathy and affection of the British public in a new and much deeper way.
Once again, her innate professionalism saw her through. Inspired by her love of Jane Austen, she began to adapt Sense and Sensibility for the screen, giving the romantic lead (Marianne) to Kate Winslet, and keeping the less glamorous role of spinster Elinor Dashwood for herself. And it was on the set of Sense and Sensibility that she met her second husband, Greg Wise, with whom she would have a daughter, Gaia, in 1999.
In this phase of her career, she became the artist of lowered expectations and nuanced performance. Starring opposite Anthony Hopkins as Miss Kenton in the Merchant Ivory production of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker prize winner The Remains of the Day, she responded with characteristic passion to the plight of domestic servants in interwar England, especially what she described as “the deformity that servitude inflicts upon people”. Thompson, celebrating a new mood in her life, named this film a “masterpiece of withheld emotion”.
After Gaia was born, she devoted herself to the working mother’s equation of less equals more, and began to morph into a national-treasure-in-waiting. Nanny McPhee (2005) and Saving Mr Banks (2013) allowed her to marry two conflicting sides of her nature, the incorrigible show-off and the reticent head girl, on screen.
She had always fought against type casting. So she steered clear of those “heritage” movies to which some mature British actresses become vulnerable. The woman who shaved her head in 2001 has, in the last decade or so, played a dissident journalist (Imagining Argentina); spoofed “a hippy-chick professor of fortune-telling” (Harry Potter); wowed the Lincoln Center as Mrs Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd; and scored cameo appearances in Men in Black 3, An Education and The Boat that Rocked.
Lately she has come into her own. Alone in Berlin, the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, has just opened to critical acclaim. Of her more recent performances, the Observer’s Mark Kermode has said: “There is something about her. You just trust her. You think, ‘I’m in proper hands here.’ She’s up there with the great – I mean really great – British female performers.”
Ang Lee, who directed her in Sense and Sensibility, thinks that Thompson’s comedy instincts may be her greatest asset. “Emma is an extremely funny lady,” he says. “Like Austen, she’s laughing at her own culture while she’s a part of it.” Robert Bathurst, recalling the girl he played opposite more than 30 years ago in Cambridge, notes affectionately that “Emma is a great survivor who will always wants to go against type. She’s even becoming more Scottish. It’s so nice to see her getting older on her own terms.”
Thompson continues to live in West Hampstead, London, with her family. In 2003 she and Wise adopted Tindyebwa Agaba (Tindy), a child soldier from Rwanda. A lifelong Labour party member, she supports Jeremy Corbyn. Her record of impulsiveness suggests, however, that’s probably not something he can count on. Still, as “a super-EU-luvvie” (the Sun), she will back Labour’s stance.
One thing is for sure: Thompson’s voice will be heard. She says, justifying her assertiveness: “We all need to speak up, and a woman who has got a louder voice needs to shout very loudly indeed.” Other sections of the British press frame it differently. “National treasure or Britain’s most annoying woman?” (Daily Telegraph). That’s the thing about wit: you either love it or loathe it.
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