Emma Thompson attends a photocall for BAFTA's Screenwriter Lecture series at BFI Southbank, 20 September. Photo: Getty
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Emma Thompson’s leap into the dark

Thompson is best known for playing complicated intellectual women, often in period dramas. But at the outset, sketch comedy was where she saw herself.

As I enter the auditorium, there’s a woman on the stage wearing denim dungarees and a hoodie, scrubbing a desk. Thinking that I’m clearly very early for Emma Thompson’s lecture on screenwriting, I take a seat and study the programme.

At the edge of my vision, I see the woman finish her cleaning and lie down on the yoga mat next to the desk. She sticks her legs in the air and groans. Slightly bemused, I watch her get back up again and sit on the arm of a chair and weep for a while, before getting a Hoover out and giving the stage floor a going-over. Finally, she sits down at her desk and starts to scribble furiously on a pad. Her hood falls back and I see her face at last – this isn’t a member of the BFI’s cleaning team. This is Emma Thompson, the only person ever to win Oscars for both writing and acting, and she has come to her lecture early to act out how she writes.

Thompson is best known for playing complicated intellectual women, often in period dramas (her Oscars came in the 1990s for Sense and Sensibility and Howards End). But as she explains, once she has changed out of her dungarees and returned to the stage, at the outset sketch comedy was where she saw herself. She began writing sketches at school and went on to be part of the Cambridge Footlights crowd that included Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

As difficult as it might be to imagine now, she wasn’t always the star of the show. “Stephen and Hugh were always so brilliant and funny,” Thompson says. “It was very difficult to get in sideways, really, because they were so wonderful and Footlights was quite male-dominated.”

Her early material was always political – “It was about everything that I cared about,” she says nostalgically – and the monologue from those days that she performs now is a tight, satirical take on Hampstead liberals and casual racism. But then her 1988 TV solo sketch show Thompson was ripped apart by critics – something she describes as “a very violent experience”. “I never wrote another monologue, I never wrote another sketch,” she says.

The show has disappeared from view, never having been released on DVD, but the excerpts that are online don’t seem to justify the mauling it received. (The Victorian mouse sketch in particular, which skilfully draws out the tragedy and comedy of a young woman’s sexual naivety, is very funny.) You wonder if the critical reaction was born more of the blustering perpetuation of the “Women aren’t funny” cliché than of genuine critique.

Since leaving comedy behind, Thompson has found time to craft her screenplays between acting jobs, often taking years to bring a project to completion. She proudly exhibits a crate retrieved from her attic that contains the 17 drafts of Sense and Sensibility and says that the children’s film Nanny McPhee was even harder to do (it spent seven years in development). Her latest effort, a biopic of the Pre-Raphaelite muse Effie Gray that has had a similarly long gestation, finally opens in cinemas in October.

It is clear that the actor and writer in her are inextricably linked. As she answers a question about the uncertain nature of the industry with a quotation from the choreographer Agnes de Mille, her voice takes on a lilting tone that demands to be heard. “The artist never entirely knows: we guess,” she says. “We may be wrong but we take leap after leap in the dark.” 

Listen to Emma Thompson’s Bafta Screenwriters’ Lecture in full at: guru.bafta.org

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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The lessons of Finding Dory are commendable, but why make a children's film so complicated?

Pixar's latest animation, a sequel to Finding Nemo, gives forgetful fish Dory a lead. Plus: Jason Bourne.

Amnesia is a concern for the heroes of two blockbuster sequels – the Pixar animation Finding Dory and the espionage thriller Jason Bourne. The condition extends to the film-makers, who have forgotten much of what made the original movies so appealing. In fairness, the 2003 Finding Nemo lacked the emotional complexity of top-drawer Pixar. But its story of an anxious clownfish combing the ocean for his lost son served as a neat rebuke to worrywart parents, and it featured one enduring character: the Pacific blue tang Dory. Her short-term memory loss left her in a state of carefree enchantment perfectly expressed by Ellen DeGeneres, whose voice calls to mind a rubber ball thrilled afresh by each new bounce.

Now Dory has a movie of her own, in which she goes in search of the parents from whom she was estranged as an infant. Many of the previous picture’s fish chip in to help, but the script’s argument for inclusivity and diversity is made most persuasively by Dory’s new allies. Hank is a tomato-red octopus who can’t bear to be touched, while Becky, a frizz-haired loon, and Gerald, a bullied sea lion, have learning difficulties that leave them vulnerable to mockery by their fellow creatures. Heroism originates here with the apparently disadvantaged, whose differences ultimately prove to be no sort of disadvantage at all.

The message is commendable, so it’s unfortunate that the execution is so complicated. Incident is stacked upon incident, most clumsily during a final half-hour in which the sea creatures take chaotically to the roads. When there are lulls in the action, these are filled too often by homilies and life lessons that demand no spelling out.

Quality control remains high in the area of animation. From the velvety anemone beneath a lattice of rippling sunlight to the pink-tinted ocean surface at dusk, it is clear that nature needs to up its game to keep ahead of Pixar. The biggest gasps should be reserved for Hank’s extraordinary chameleonic powers, which allow him to blend into a laboratory wall and to mimic a potted plant or a handrail. Impersonating a baby in its stroller, he uses his Mr Tickle arms to propel himself at high speed like a wheelchair-basketball champ tearing up the court. In a film that largely plays it safe, Hank brings a jolt of anarchic danger.

The breakneck editing and neck-breaking violence of the Bourne series, about a brainwashed CIA killing machine who gradually recovers his memory and goes rogue, has been the biggest influence on action cinema since the advent of the car chase. There have been only three instalments until now (four if you count the spin-off The Bourne Legacy) but their style is so ubiquitous it feels as if there’s one Bourne every minute. The latest outing reunites two leading players who swore they were done with the franchise: the actor Matt Damon, looking as bulky and implacable as a tank, and Paul Greengrass, the British director who whipped up a storm in films two and three but consigns it to a teacup this time around.

Rarely has such a fast-paced film felt so weary and resigned. Christopher Rouse’s screenplay throws into the usual paranoid, dystopian, NSA-fearing mix a Zuckerberg-style social media guru (Riz Ahmed) in cahoots with the craggy CIA overlord (Tommy Lee Jones) hunting Bourne. There is also a bright CIA underling (Alicia Vikander) experiencing vague pangs of conscience from her operations hub where po-faced automatons tap endlessly on keyboards; it’s like a Kraftwerk gig without the tunes.

The film makes gestures towards political topicality. But whether it’s riots in Greece or the ongoing tension between security and privacy, everything is reduced to the level of window dressing while Bourne crashes motorbikes, plummets from the tops of buildings and doles out upper cuts as though he were passing around Tic Tacs.

Just once it would be nice to have some character detail or a line of dialogue that went beyond “Suspect turning left”, or the series catchphrase: “You don’t have any idea who you’re dealing with!” Bourne himself is a dead end, dramatically speaking; he has recovered his memory now but his personality and inner conflict have been wiped clean. When he isn’t fighting, he has nothing to do except go woozy with flashbacks and generally outfox the CIA. He should try hiding in the voluminous bags beneath Tommy Lee Jones’s eyes – they’d never find him there.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue