Emma Thompson is an acting genius. From the moment her career began decades ago at Cambridge, she has stepped into each role with elegance, grace, and a majestic ability to captivate an audience. Even her more alternative performances, like becoming the Prime Minister in Johnny English Strikes Again (which, it won’t surprise you to read, hasn’t made my top five) are done with humour and an authority that only Thompson could manage. In the spirit of celebrating her most wonderful craft, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to reflect on her top five films in this ranked list.
5. Nanny McPhee (2005) dir. Kirk Jones/Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (2010) dir. Susanna White
Well, it won’t surprise you to learn that, such is my glowing endorsement of Thompson, I’ve already cheated and made this list a top six. Emma Thompson shines as the nanny desperate to make children behave each time that she’s played the role. Both films formed a crucial part of my childhood, as I feared Nanny McPhee but also marvelled at her magic. I enjoyed the rollicking traditional teaching she offered, her less than satisfactory jackdaw Mr Edelweiss, and her compassion. It is such a shame to cinema that future sequels have been cancelled.
4. Saving Mr Banks (2013) dir. John Lee Hancock
Another film that formed a crucial part of my childhood was Mary Poppins. Released in 1964, when Emma Thompson was only five, that film doesn’t make the list for obvious reasons. What does, however, is Saving Mr Banks, a moving portrayal of P. L. Travers’ (the author of Mary Poppins) difficult relationship with Walt Disney whilst trying to create a movie adaptation of her novel. While Tom Hanks shines as the beacon of all things animation, it is Emma Thompson who keeps the film’s feet on the ground by superbly conveying the dilemma of an author desperate to preserve the authenticity of their work as it translated on to the big screen.
3. Much Ado About Nothing (1993) dir. Kenneth Branagh
Everyone remembers the Shakespeare play that they studied for their GCSEs, and this was mine. One of the Bard’s finest comedies, Kenneth Branagh masterfully brings this story from the stage to the screen. Emma Thompson plays Beatrice, a perfect character. Forthright, no-nonsense and unafraid to stand up for what is right, Beatrice no doubt reflects Thompson’s real-life personality. Her steely determination and celebration of independence make for brilliant viewing and help to bring Shakespeare to an audience who might not have previously engaged with his material.
2. Love Actually (2003) dir. Richard Curtis
We all love Love Actually, whether we care to admit it or not. Richard Curtis’s iconic Christmas film is, alongside Gosford Park, one of the best examples of an ensemble cast. With so many different storylines beautifully intertwining with one another, we can all pick out our personal favourites. For me, few moments beat Emma Thompson listening to Joni Mitchell having just realised the extent of her betrayal at the hands of her husband (Alan Rickman). It is pure emotion, pure acting and demonstrates that the film is more than just forgettable festive viewing. Rather, it explains why families return to Richard Curtis’s movie year after year.
1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) dir. Alfonso Cuarón
Yes, what else could my favourite Emma Thompson film have been? Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who deservedly won Best Director for his film Gravity, this movie took the Harry Potter cinematic universe up to another level, and really ensured that the series could continue to work as feature length films. Emma Thompson’s character Professor Trelawney plays a crucial part in the plot. She is not just a light entertainment character with large spectacles, memorable only for failing Hermione Granger. No, she is a teller of prophecies which ultimately shape Harry’s future. Can you imagine anyone but Emma Thompson pulling that off? I didn’t think so.