Today, Emma Thompson received her star on Hollywood’s walk of fame, and in fine company too. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Laurie were there to watch her leave her mark, such a long way away from Cambridge and the Footlights where Emma’s (and Laurie’s) career took root. So just add Stephen Fry, Tony Slattery, Griff Rhys Jones, Sandi Toksvig and Rory McGrath, to name but a few, to the rolecall of just one generation of Cambridge Footlights (Monty Pythons and Goodies can be found in another), and you get an idea of the extraordinary talent that left the university at the end of the 1970s. And I say this as an Oxford person…
I first saw Emma Thompson on stage in Nottingham, I think it was, back in 1990. The Renaissance Theatre Company, run by Emma’s then husband Kenneth Branagh, took on A Midsummer Night’s Dream in an extremely-well received and vigorous adaptation. Emma played Helena and I will never forget Richard Brier’s Bottom – if you pardon the expression. The last time I saw Emma Thompson was at the premiere in London last year of An Education. Through twenty years, Emma has done more than enough to earn some Hollywood bling, her own star on a street of stars (plus a couple of Oscars along the way, of course), not least because of the range and breadth of her career, whether it’s on TV, on the stage or on the silver screen, or from behind the scenes with a pen (she is currently working on a revamp of My Fair Lady). Emma Thompson has the ability to appear as many things for many audiences, child and adult alike. Most recently, this was superbly demonstrated in the last movie role that I saw Emma in – as the eponymous Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang.
I must admit that I made the decision to invest in a Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang DVD partly because I was interested to hear how Maggie Gyllenhaal’s English accent compared to that of her brother in Prince of Persia and to that of her husband in An Education. I think it’s fair to say that Maggie does indeed win the Gyllenhaal-Sarsgaard prize for best English accent at the dinner table competition, but aside from all that, I’m so glad I decided to watch the film because I absolutely loved it. This did come as a bit of a surprise. I’m not that keen on films with kiddies and I’m not that keen on pigs. But it’s difficult not to laugh in the face of a farm that mucky and with a mother that endearingly nice yet desperate and Maggie Smith is a wonder as always. Storing treacle in drawers isn’t a world away from some of the behaviour I’ve witnessed over the years. And cowpats do indeed make comfy cushions, as long as it’s someone else doing the sitting.
So, while Maggie and the four children are a delight and Maggie Smith is just her normal fanstastic self, then there’s Emma Thompson. Her physical transformation through the film is a joy and with every change to her warty ugly face with its woolly curtain head of hair you feel an extra degree of warmth pulse through you. Or at least I did. This is no Mary Poppins – here is a nanny who understands the stress of the war her young charges face – real fear and devastation and mountain-high hope. The punishments she metes out come in the shape of synchronised swimming pigs and baby elephants in the bed. And each act of kindness by these four troubled but such funny children leaves its mark on the face of Nanny McPhee (in reverse).
The cast is such a good one. And I wasn’t expecting half of them. The scene between uber-coiffed Cyril and his father Lord Gray (played superbly by Ralph Fiennes) was painful and delightful at the same time – fear for the loss of another boy’s father almost brings the two together – almost. The potential is there. While the mother is always out of sight, merely the giver of hatboxes.
Rhys Ifans is evil uncle Phil and he is indeed evil and possibly deserving of having his innerds scooped out. But he did have me fooled at one point. And then there’s Ewan McGregor. I cannot lie. I tried to stay resolute and strong but I am a sentimental fool when it comes to true love and the Toy Story Kitchen Towel was greatly needed.
The two characers who hold this film together are Nanny McPhee and Mrs Green and it is no wonder now to read interviews where Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal talk about their strong friendship and support of one another. The warmth of this film is a perfect antidote to a hard day in the real world and so continues my enjoyment of the talent that is Emma Thompson – twenty years on and counting…
Picture from Life.