Emma Thompson's best films – ranked!

As the Oscar-winning actor, screenwriter and climate change protester returns to cinemas in Men in Black International and Late Night, we count down her top 10 turns

10. Love Actually (2003)

Richard Curtis’s seasonal schmaltzfest is given real welly by Thompson’s raw performance as the bereft wife of Alan Rickman’s philandering husband. “You’ve made the life I lead foolish,” she sobs, after the old necklace-CD switcheroo. Never has plush, Waitrose-styled domesticity been so moving.

9. Junior (1994)

Her first major Hollywood foray (as an Oscar-winning actor, no less) in this Arnie’s-having-a-baby comedy might have been one of the great disasters of all time. But with Ivan Reitman on board as director, and Thompson’s natural comedy skills, Junior turned out highly entertaining, with Thompson emerging as a convincing mainstream romantic foil.

8. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban/ Order of the Phoenix/ Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2004/2007/2011)

Divination professor Sybil Trelawney is one of the Potterverse’s more thankless roles, given that almost everyone finds her annoying, irritating or both. But, tricked out with Coke-bottle specs, mad hair and hippy headscarf, Thompson pulled it off with aplomb and an immense lack of vanity (see also: Nanny McPhee).

In the Name of the Father.
Pointed the way to her future political activism … In the Name of the Father. Photograph: Cinetext Bildarchiv/Allstar/Universal

7. In the Name of the Father (1993)

Having established herself as Merchant Ivory’s queen of humane restraint, Thompson took a dramatic left turn with Jim Sheridan’s sledgehammer assault on the British justice system. As radical lawyer Gareth Peirce, who was crucial in overturning the wrongful convictions of the Guildford Four, Thompson’s inner steel was there for all to see, and pointed the way forward to her future political activism.

6. The Children Act (2017)

Thompson had another legal role – this time as a judge – in last year’s acclaimed adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel about Jehovah’s Witness parents who won’t let their dying son have the blood transfusion that will cure him. Unexpectedly topical, due to the proximate real-life Charlie Gard case, this serious (if somewhat self-important) film is given life by an exceptional performance: who else could have communicated this mix of lacerating intelligence and human weakness?

The Tall Guy.
The furniture-smashing, milk-carton-rolling sex scene remains a classic … The Tall Guy. Photograph: Allstar/LWT

5. The Tall Guy (1989)

Lots of careers were made here: Richard Curtis’s first produced film script, Mel Smith’s first feature directing credit and, of course, Thompson’s first proper film job. Still then primarily a comedy performer, she did the business as the nurse whom Jeff Goldblum’s jobbing actor falls in love with. The furniture-smashing, milk-carton-rolling sex scene remains a classic, and you can see how Thompson’s combo of directness and frailty was key in shaping the Curtis template, which combines stock tropes with an understated naturalism.

4. The Legend of Barney Thomson (2015)

It is still not entirely clear why and how Thompson ended up in Robert Carlyle’s sole directing credit to date, but it is by some distance her most extraordinary performance. Barney is a black crime comedy about a Glaswegian barber (played by Carlyle) and – if we’re being entirely honest – is a bit ragged around the edges. Thompson is totally unrecognisable and completely fantastic as Barney’s mum: a cigarette-chugging chip hooverer, swathed in fake fur and prosthetic jowls. Worth seeking out for her alone.

3. The Remains of the Day (1993)

In many ways the absolute archetype of buttoned-up Merchant Ivoryism – almost comically so. Thompson plays Miss Kenton, the slightly less repressed of the two head servants in a pre-war English mansion, and deploys her entire arsenal of acting know-how to communicate her housekeeper character’s feelings for the epic stuffed shirt played by Anthony Hopkins.

Howards End.
Her performance is the moderate beating heart … Howards End. Photograph: Allstar/Film Four International

2. Howards End (1992)

Of Thompson’s two great Merchant Ivorys, this just about edges it, largely because of its more expansive scale and more precise social commentary. Thompson won her first Oscar for her role as Margaret, the elder of the two Schlegel sisters, conducting (another) tender romance with Hopkins, here playing someone at the opposite end of the social scale from the butler in The Remains of the Day. Thompson’s relaxed performance is the moderate beating heart of the best EM Forster adaptation – and one of the finest films ever made.

Sense and Sensibility.
Her skill as a performer matched by her agility as a writer … Sense and Sensibility. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia

1. Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Not a Merchant Ivory, although in many ways it resembles one, and is arguably the leading entry in the cycle of 90s/00s Jane Austen adaptations. Thompson very much secured her reputation as a film-industry polymath by writing the script herself, and her casting as Elinor Dashwood was a given, considering her major-league status after the Merchant Ivory one-two. Thompson’s skill as a performer was matched by her agility as a writer: surprisingly little of the original novel remains, and Thompson reshuffles the pack to allow her great gift as a performer – the foregrounding of warmth and wit beneath the social mask – to ballast the film. We’re not suggesting director Ang Lee had nothing to do with it, but Thompson was easily his equal in this immensely English masterpiece.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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