Emma Thompson is taller and bigger-boned than I expected. She’s also funnier, sturdier and cheekier than the sensibly shod, slightly fusty and often fragile English ladies she’s cast as, from Margaret Schlegel in Howards End to the repressed housekeeper in The Remains of the Day, to Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, to the betrayed wife in Love Actually. Frequently skewered in sneering quarters of the English media for her earnestness and offscreen human-rights work (as celebrity activists go, she’s actually unusually well-informed about poverty in Africa and torture worldwide), in America Thompson has always been the embodiment of a thinking man’s English Rose fantasy. So much for old-school Anglophilia: Slogging manfully through a long day of interviews for the excellent Nanny McPhee, a new children’s movie she wrote and stars in, the 46-year-old Thompson actually looks delectably pop in low-rise pinstriped black pants, chunky jewelry and a cropped blond shag that sets off the well-appointed cheekbones she inherited from her mother, actress Phyllida Law. And for all her upper-crust pedigree, she speaks in the demotic, classless London twang that has replaced BBC English in the post-aristocratic age.
Thompson’s exuberant presence effortlessly fills a room, though in a zanier way than her Nanny McPhee, a quietly sinister Victorian spinster — almost a parody of Thompson’s serious roles — tricked out in a fearsome unibrow, hairy warts, a bulbous nose and a monster snaggletooth. Materializing in a hectically disorganized family headed by Colin Firth as a hapless, widowed undertaker with no idea how to rein in his four out-of-control kids, Miss McPhee (who’s based on the central character in the Nurse Matilda children’s book series by Christianna Brand) is a permissive parent’s supernanny from hell: strict, insistent on good manners and self-reliance, and ready to vanish as soon as her civilizing mission is accomplished. In my corner of Santa Monica, where little monsters reared on a surfeit of self-esteem strike fear into the hearts of neighborhood waiters, she’d be sent packing without references.
Though Nanny McPhee has done robust business in England — perhaps more because it’s a spanking good caper than because spare-the-rod still rules — more than one English reviewer has chided Thompson for ripping off Mary Poppins. But Nanny McPhee is the Poppins movie that P.L. Traverswould have made had she had input into the Walt Disney version, which tarted up the umbrella’d one with twittering birds, spoonfuls of sugar and chimney sweeps with happy feet. Thompson loves the Disney Poppins for what it is, but agrees that it has nothing whatever to do with Travers’ dark vision of an incompetent family set straight by a martinet with balls. Not that Nanny McPhee is exactly film noir: Directed with cheeky brio by Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine), the movie pops several genres — horror movie, slapstick comedy, family drama and a touch of Wilde-ian drawing-room farce — into the blender and comes up with an unmistakably English, Carry On Nanny–type romp, underpinned by a bracing, almost tragic vision of attachment and loss. Thompson, with only half her tongue in her cheek, insists that she was less influenced by Mary Poppins than by Westerns like Shane, in which an enigmatic stranger rides into town, sorts out the locals, and takes off, forever lonely, into the sunset. “When I started thinking about that,” she says, “I realized that in all the great stories, even if there’s a happily-ever-after ending, there’s something sad.”
The family in Nanny McPhee is falling apart because it has submerged its grief over the death of the mother, and I ask Thompson why she thinks so many kids’ movies begin with a dead or absent matriarch. “Children are much more understanding of the suddenness and arbitrariness of death than we are,” says Thompson, who has a 6-year-old daughter, Gaia, conceived via in-vitro fertilization with her husband, actor Greg Wise. “The old fairy tales contain a lot of that, and we’ve stolen from them, just as they stole from Greek myth, which has that same mixture of pre-Christian chaos.” Alienated at first by the nanny’s witchy looks and by her terrifyingly authoritative knack of lowering her voice exponentially the louder they shout, the children come to trust her and realize she’s on their side. Though Nanny McPhee never bursts into song or morphs into a kissy maternal figure, to the kids it seems as though her warts and all start to disappear, until by the end she looks as lovely as, well, Emma Thompson.
Like Poppins, McPhee stays until she’s wanted but no longer needed, but Thompson’s performance — the still, quiet center of the movie — draws more on the impacted housekeeper she played in The Remains of the Day than on Julie Andrews’ brisk good cheer. “She’s a space maker,” says Thompson, “and you can’t be a space maker if you’re busy trying to make people laugh.” Floating around in Nanny’s orbit, though, are the saucily written, inspired creations of Emma Thompson, comedian — she has thoroughly overhauled Brand’s characters — played by the cream of British talent. Imelda Staunton is a militaristic cook in magenta hair; the wildly funny Celia Imrie is a scream as Mrs. Quickly, a florally upholstered fortune hunter with designs on the reluctant Firth; Adam Godley is priceless as the nerdy vicar without whom no British farce is complete; and, in a rare treat, Angela Lansbury (see sidebar) is at her Lady Bracknell-ish snottiest as Aunt Adelaide, a hooknosed bossy boots in a chicken dress who threatens to cut off Firth without a penny unless he gets hitched within the hour.
Notwithstanding her wonderfully costumed ditzy professor in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Thompson has gotten so typed as a put-upon matron that one almost forgets she got her start in comedy. Her father, Eric, who died when she was 20, was the creator of the delightful children’s television series The Magic Roundabout, and she grew up among what she calls “journeymen actors” with bags of joie de vivre. Thompson went to the tony, modestly boho Camden High School for Girls in northwest London, which has produced more than its share of media and entertainment types. At Cambridge University, where she read English literature, she got her sketch-comedy training in the famous Footlights Revue, side by side with the likes of Hugh Laurie, Robbie Coltrane and Stephen Fry. “I assumed I was going to be a comedian,” she says, “and I wanted to be a cross between Lily Tomlin, Ruth Buzzi, Ruth Draper and Joyce Grenfell [a wonderful British monologist, much influenced by Draper, who’s not as well known as she should be in the United States].” That’s a pretty rich pedigree, and much later Thompson got her own sketch-comedy television series with her mother and younger sister Sophie, which drew mixed reviews. With help from Coltrane, she landed her first acting role “for longer than three minutes,” and from there she went to a straight role in the World War II television series Fortunes of War, playing opposite Kenneth Branagh — whom she refers to as “my ex” — in a dark wig (“it looked like a cow pat”) ever after referred to by her friends as M. Wig. Her first feature film, Mel Smith’s wonderfully antic The Tall Guy, opposite Jeff Goldblum, justly remains a favorite.
But if there’s a role that bottles Thompson’s mercurial presence — goofy and radiant, with an edge of sadness — it’s as the Angel in Mike Nichols’ television adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. She’s like that offscreen, too — warmly accessible, playful and relaxed (publicists adore her), but wary of self-revelation. She’s endlessly solicitous: When I mention in passing that my mother is a fan of hers, she leaps to a desk and bangs out a letter that will make my mum’s year. It’s almost as though someone deputed her early on in life to be everyone’s caretaker but her own. Though she says she hates to work all the time, Thompson drove herself so hard recently that she suffered a sort of collapse and had to down tools for a while. She speaks of her writing more as a compulsion than something she enjoys. (Her preferred place to write, despite the fact that her husband has built her her own office, is the loo, where her two Oscar statuettes — Best Actress for Howards End in 1993 and Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility in 1996 — also reside.) Would she like to direct? “One day,” she says. “But if you can tell me how to be an adequate mother and direct a film, I’ll do it.” And where does she see herself going from here? She smiles sweetly. “Downhill.”
Nanny McPhee opens Friday, January 27, citywide.