Mar­riage isn’t al­ways mar­vel­lous.”

As an ac­tress she of­ten plays posh ladies in frocks, but pri­vately Emma Thomp­son is loud, an­gry and rad­i­cal. Wil­liam Lan­g­ley talks to the Bri­tish Dame about the se­cret to a happy mar­riage and her heart­break­ing new role.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

Emma Thomp­son has a new look, but the sound is fa­mil­iar. Im­per­vi­ous to in­ter­rup­tions, im­mune to hes­i­ta­tion, it whoops and loops in elab­o­rate con­ver­sa­tional cir­cles be­fore nally giv­ing way to a re-ap­pli­ca­tion of peachy-coloured lip­stick. “Bug­ger. Worn it all off. Think I’ve been bang­ing on too much,” she says.

Bang­ing on is one of the things Emma has done bril­liantly down the years. She not only has opin­ions on ev­ery­thing, but the ver­bal vir­tu­os­ity to en­sure they are fully and in­escapably broad­cast. In the past, her fond­ness for say­ing what she thinks has landed her in trou­ble, with crit­ics la­belling her “the most an­noy­ing wo­man in Bri­tain”, but the ac­tress isn’t lis­ten­ing, and to­day, re­as­sur­ingly, there is some­thing else she wants to talk about.

First, though, that new look. The fa­mil­iar, lay­ered blonde hairdo has given way to a shorter, sil­very pixie-cut, and around Emma’s slinky, yoga-toned form is draped a multi-tiered, an­kle-length out t from the cult Lon­don de­sign house Egg, whose cus­tomers in­clude Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter,

Theresa May. Emma is ap­proach­ing 60, a Dame of the Em­pire, and the style seems to say that she has reached a more se­ri­ous stage of her life.

The roles, too, re ect a sub­tle change. In her new lm The Chil­dren Act, adapted from a novel by Ian McEwan, she plays a High Court judge, con­fronted by moral dilem­mas at work and a sexs­tarved hus­band at home. To pre­pare for the part, Emma spent months watch­ing up-close how the law works, and found many of her com­fort­able as­sump­tions chal­lenged.

“We were able to go be­hind the scenes at the High Court and the Old Bai­ley, and I found it com­pletely fas­ci­nat­ing,” she says. “What hits you rst is how ar­cane it seems, like be­ing in a kind of se­cret so­ci­ety, with all these an­cient rit­u­als and mys­ti­cal rules. Yet judges

have this ex­traor­di­nar­ily im­por­tant, re­spon­si­ble job, and it is hum­bling to watch them work­ing with such pro­fes­sional ded­i­ca­tion, but also with com­pas­sion and understanding, know­ing that their judge­ments can af­fect peo­ple so vis­cer­ally that their whole lives may de­pend on it.”

Emma’s char­ac­ter, Fiona Maye, sits in the Fam­ily Di­vi­sion of the Lon­don High Court, a place de­scribed by McEwan as “teem­ing with strange dif­fer­ences, spe­cial plead­ing, in­ti­mate half-truths and ex­otic ac­cu­sa­tion”.

The pres­sure of work is af­fect­ing her mar­riage to Jack, a laid-back aca­demic (played by Stan­ley Tucci), who com­plains that they haven’t made love for nearly a year, and an­nounces his in­ten­tion to have an af­fair.

Barely has Fiona di­gested this shock, than she is plunged into a case in­volv­ing a 17-year-old Je­ho­vah’s Wit­ness, who, sup­ported by his par­ents, is re­fus­ing to have life-sav­ing blood trans­fu­sions. Wreathed in pow­er­ful emo­tions and be­set by con ict­ing ideas of moral jus­tice, Fiona must, es­sen­tially, de­cide whether the boy lives or dies.

Emma says the lm ap­pealed be­cause she couldn’t think of an­other one with a fe­male judge in a lead­ing role. “The law is a deeply pa­tri­ar­chal, hi­er­ar­chi­cal and rigid in­sti­tu­tion,” she huffs, “so for a wo­man to get through the door, she has to be dou­bly bril­liant. I got to know a cou­ple of these women judges and they are ex­tra­or­di­nary. I’m not sug­gest­ing a wo­man judge will han­dle a case dif­fer­ently, but her jour­ney to the bench will have been dif­fer­ent. It’s a heavy old world to break into, and you have to prove your­self even more.

“I think it changes you. When you are sitting up there, look­ing down on ev­ery­one, with that power to rule, you feel god­like. But when Fiona is away from that ‘place above’ and she is sitting in her at with her hus­band she can’t hear him, and it is as though that god­like qual­ity has made her deaf.”

Emma is un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally quiet for a mo­ment. The lm, which takes its ti­tle from a land­mark 1989 Act of Par­lia­ment, giv­ing courts rights to safe­guard chil­dren’s wel­fare by over­rul­ing the wishes of par­ents, has clearly made her think. And to re ect on whether she would have reached the same de­ci­sion as Fiona.

“Well, look, I’m a left­ist, fem­i­nist, lib­er­tar­ian white athe­ist, so I’d ob­vi­ously have thrown the whole thing out of court with­out a sec­ond’s ar­gu­ment,” she hoots. “But that’s be­cause I’m me, and I’m not sitting in judge­ment. When I’m be­ing Fiona, my job is to show that we need to think about these things, and ask how we nd a way to re­spect a dif­fer­ent point of view. It’s al­ways a good thing to ques­tion your own views. Keep ques­tion­ing. Bet­ter than be­ing cer­tain about any­thing. Cer­tainty is death.”

Not that Emma has ever been shy of ex­press­ing an opin­ion. Ac­tivism, she says, is in her blood. Even at The Cam­den School for Girls – a favoured des­ti­na­tion for the daugh­ters of well-heeled, lib­eral-think­ing par­ents – she went on ban-the-bomb marches, sup­ported strik­ing coalmin­ers and col­lected money for Green­peace. At Cam­bridge Univer­sity, where she be­came the rst fe­male mem­ber of the cel­e­brated Foot­lights the­atre troupe, she shaved her head and em­braced fem­i­nism, and was, she says, “loud and an­gry”. She has since un­loaded on ev­ery­thing from Brexit to the Is­rael-Pales­tinian con ict, de­scribed cli­mate change scep­tics as “bonkers”, been sprayed with ma­nure by an an­gry farmer dur­ing a frack­ing protest, and cre­ated a po­lite stand-off be­tween those who re­gard her as a na­tional trea­sure and those who car­i­ca­ture her as the cham­pagne-quaf ng queen of the cause-mon­ger­ing showbiz “luvvies”.

She was shaped by a bo­hemian child­hood, the daugh­ter of Eric Thomp­son, cre­ator of an odd­ball 1960s chil­dren’s TV pro­gram, The Magic Round­about, and his for­mi­da­ble Scot­tish ac­tress wife, Phyl­l­ida Law. The fam­ily home was a hive of cre­ative en­ergy, lled with writ­ers and ac­tors like Sir Alec Guin­ness, who told Emma the facts of life when she was eight.

She cheer­fully ac­cepts the irony of hav­ing burst out of all this early rad­i­cal­ism to be­come fa­mous for

“I’m the di­a­met­ric op­po­site of many of the parts I’ve played.”

play­ing up­stand­ing women with posh voices in pe­riod dra­mas. “It’s de nitely odd,” she nods. “I hadn’t re­ally thought about it like that, but it’s true, I’m the di­a­met­ric op­po­site of many of the parts I’ve played. I re­mem­ber my mother once scream­ing at me:

‘Oh, no! You’re not go­ing to play an­other GOOD WO­MAN IN A FROCK!’ And I thought, ‘My God, is that re­ally me?’ But things have changed a lit­tle as I’ve got older – I mean re­cently I’ve played some ab­so­lute nutjobs, to­tally bonkers women.”

Which leads di­rectly on to one of Emma’s en­dur­ing pre­oc­cu­pa­tions: “The thing is that roles for women are so few and far be­tween. I don’t mean ac­tual roles in ac­tual lms, I mean roles that mean some­thing within our story struc­tures, and there’s re­ally not a lot of choice. You don’t get a lot of ... oh, mav­er­ick women free­dom ghters, so the pal­ette for women in what I call heroic roles is not very big, and it only ex­ists at all in terms of hav­ing a wo­man do the same thing as a man, so how many choices do we have?

“There’s the bad mum. Done that. The good mum. Done that. What else? I’ve just played a late night TV chat show host [in the forth­com­ing lm Late Night, co-star­ring Amy Ryan], and there are no fe­male late night TV chat show hosts, so that’s new. We have to cre­ate our own stuff.

If I’m talk­ing to women, I say to them, you have to nd new sto­ries and you’ve got to write them your­selves, and if you can’t write them nd some­one who can.”

Emma’s dame­hood ar­rived ear­lier this year with the Queen’s birth­day honours list, el­e­vat­ing her to the ranks of such the­atri­cal ma­tri­archs as Judi Dench and Mag­gie Smith. In re­ceiv­ing it, she made a point of promis­ing to con­tinue bang­ing on. “It’s a huge hon­our,” she an­nounced. “I’ve al­ways wanted to be able to re­fer to my­self as a dame. Small D. Dame with a cap­i­tal D is even more thrilling. I plan to go on be­ing very dif cult, just in case any­one was won­der­ing if it might shut me up.”

Why should it? Even those who claim to nd Emma an­noy­ing would strug­gle to deny that she’s been one of the great adorn­ments of mod­ern screen and stage. Al­ways des­tined to be an ac­tress, she be­gan mak­ing a name for her­self in the 1980s with TV and the­atre roles, but it was her

Os­car-win­ning per­for­mance as the en­gag­ing, enig­matic Mar­garet Sch­legel (a char­ac­ter who still fas­ci­nates her) in Mer­chant Ivory’s 1992 pro­duc­tion of Howards End, that made her an in­ter­na­tional star.

By this time she was mar­ried to Ken­neth Branagh, the bright­est young light of the Bri­tish the­atre, and the cou­ple – fondly known as “Ken ‘n’ Em” – were feted as the suc­ces­sors to Lau­rence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. The mar­riage, though, was less of a tri­umph than their col­lab­o­ra­tions, and they broke up af­ter six years, when Ken­neth be­gan an af­fair with ac­tress Helena Bonham Carter. Emma was plunged into de­pres­sion, and has not worked with Ken­neth since, al­though she has pub­licly for­given Helena, who she calls “a won­der­ful wo­man”.

For the past 15 years she has been mar­ried to ac­tor Greg Wise, whom she met dur­ing the 1995 pro­duc­tion of Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity, which won her a sec­ond Os­car. They live with their 18-year-old daugh­ter, Gaia, in the same leafy north Lon­don street Emma grew up in. In fact, the en­tire neigh­bour­hood sounds like a ver­i­ta­ble war­ren of Thomp­sons, with mum Phyl­l­ida liv­ing a few doors away, Emma’s younger sis­ter, So­phie, also an ac­tress, round the cor­ner, her adopted son Tindy up the road, and var­i­ous neph­ews and cousins dot­ted close by.

They all seem to get on a storm, al­though Emma is cau­tious about of­fer­ing ad­vice on suc­cess­ful re­la­tion­ships. “You’ve just got to hold on through the bad bits,” she says, “and if you get through to the other side it’s al­ways bet­ter. I think peo­ple in long, happy mar­riages tell a lot of bs, like ‘Yes, it’s been mar­vel­lous,’ whereas I say ‘No, some­times it’s been aw­ful.’ I hope it car­ries on, but we don’t know. We’re very clear. We say, ‘Well, this is nice, isn’t it?’ We don’t take any­thing for granted.”

When Gaia was born in 2003, af­ter IVF treat­ment that Greg later de­scribed as “bru­tal and up­set­ting”, the cou­ple learned that they were un­able to have any more chil­dren. Two years later they met Tindyebwa Agaba, a 16-year-old for­mer child sol­dier from Rwanda, who had been sleep­ing rough in Lon­don’s Trafal­gar Square. They de­cided to help, tak­ing him into their home, guid­ing him to a place at one of Bri­tain’s top uni­ver­si­ties, and al­though they have never for­mally adopted him, con­sider him their son.

Dur­ing these years, Emma scaled back on work, ap­pear­ing mostly in sup­port­ing roles in smaller scale projects. She spent a lot of time writ­ing at her re­mote cot­tage in the Scot­tish High­lands, and home­schooled Gaia. The wor­ry­ing news for her fans is that she thor­oughly en­joyed the time off and is hun­gry for more.

“I feel very for­tu­nate to have had my ca­reer, but I’m de nitely think­ing about slow­ing down,” she con des. “It would be a bit mad, ac­tu­ally, to get to nearly 60 and not be think­ing about it.

“You have to be hon­est. It’s not like I’m 30 any­more, and I’m only still go­ing now be­cause I’ve been lucky, and I’ve never been ill, and peo­ple still want me to do things.

I’d like to do more writ­ing, more projects with women, but I de nitely don’t want to go on work­ing all the time. I re­ally don’t want to do that. I just want to live.”

The Chil­dren Act opens in cin­e­mas on Novem­ber 22.

“At nearly 60 I’m de nitely think­ing about slow­ing down.”

Above: With mem­bers of the famed Cam­bridge Univer­sity Foot­lights the­atre troupe. Emma was their first fe­male mem­ber. Left: As High Court judge Fiona Maye in The Chil­dren Act.

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