Emma Thompson gave a confident performance ; ‘Saving Mr Banks’ premiere

Emma Thompson

It’s been a long time coming, but Emma Thompson’s water-cooler moment has well and truly arrived. Where two or more women over 40 have gathered together, the talk has been of the 54-year-old actress’s stunning red carpet outing at the weekend.

Although the self-confessed “prickly” bluestocking would once have sternly disapproved of such a fatuous reason for a fuss, there’s every reason to suspect that the double Oscar winner may have softened enough to enjoy the genuine pleasure (we’ll get to the envy later) at her luminous appearance.

Thompson, who was attending the premiere of her new film, Saving Mr Banks, in which she plays PL Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, wore a Maria Grachvogel ensemble of a dark patterned skirt, hem fashionably dipped at the back, with a sheer blouse etched with trees.

Her blonde hair was expensively highlighted, her legs toned and tanned, her make-up flawless. But it was her radiant smile that dazzled the Leicester Square crowds the most.

Her chic debut in London comes hot on the heels of her star turn at the Toronto Film Festival last month, where she and Pierce Brosnan, 60, were promoting their new film Love Punch, about a retired couple who attempt a diamond heist to recover their stolen pension funds.

In Canada she played for the cameras, larked about at the press conference, and for the screening wore a bang-on-trend candy-pink Stella McCartney dress that was admirably sassy yet grown-up, and a welcome departure from the mannish tailoring that is her default style.

Of course, mention must be made of her spit-spot, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious performance in Saving Mr Banks, which co-stars Tom Hanks. He plays Walt Disney, attempting to persuade the redoubtable Mrs Travers to sign over her creation to his studio, while she point-blank refuses to have Mary Poppins turned into “a silly cartoon”. Nor would Thompson relish the idea of being regarded as a silly eyes-and-teeth caricature of AN Other actress. Which, of course, she is not.

The daughter of doughty Scots actress Phyllida Law and Eric Thompson, who wrote and narrated The Magic Roundabout, she was educated at Camden School for Girls, then read English at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she joined Footlights, the university’s sketch comedy troupe.

Her career continued on a stellar trajectory with theatre roles and numerous television series, which earned her a Bafta before the age of 30. She married Kenneth Branagh and became one half of the ultimate West End golden couple. Her first big-screen role was in The Tall Guy starring Jeff Goldblum in 1989 and by 1992 she received her first Oscar for Howards End.

Four years later came her second, for best adapted screenplay for Sense and Sensibility. Since then she has introduced herself to a new audience, adapting, writing and starring in two Nanny McPhee films, as well as starring in Harry Potter.

Her marriage to Branagh ended in 1995 and in 2003 she married English actor Greg Wise, eight years her junior. The couple have a daughter, Gaia, now 13, and later adopted former Rwandan child soldier Tindyebwa, now a human rights lawyer.

Human rights figure high on Thompson’s personal agenda; she is an ambassador for ActionAid and a patron for the Refugee Council, as well as a vocal member of Greenpeace. They are all deeply serious causes, but she has, truth be told, come across as tub-thumpingly earnest in the past. In recent years, however, she has notably been taking herself, if not her beliefs, less seriously.

“Say ‘human rights activists’ and increasing numbers of people will just slam their hands over their ears,” she wrote with refreshing tartness in 2009. Articulate and witty, Thompson is at her scintillating best when being as truthful in reality as she is on-screen. In an interview to publicise Saving Mr Banks, Thompson described herself as “cantankerous” and “difficult”, a cheerful admission that hints at a certain lightening of her mood.

Back at the nation’s water coolers, it has not gone unnoted that A-list stars – even down-to-earth ones – can rely on a raft of support staff to manage the daily irritations that make other women her age look careworn and tired.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can pay for a heck of a lot of maintenance, such as a make-up artist, hair stylist and PA who can call in couture samples as and when required. But for all this giddy privilege, Thompson has often seemed surprisingly ill-at-ease on the red carpet.

Her awkward body language (right hand on left wrist), faltering facial expressions and don’t-look-at-me oversized tuxedos have often conveyed a sense that she’s downright embarrassed by it all.

As a woman who has always prided herself on her intelligence rather than her looks, she wants to communicate to those looking closely enough that she is both keenly aware of – and acutely uncomfortable with – the absurd frivolity of having to trot past the paparazzi like a show pony. It’s a quintessentially British approach to fame that would baffle American stars.

But judging from her new and unapologetic foray into glamor, it looks as though she might finally be relaxing into a role that combines brains and beauty. As the French would say, Thompson is “bien dans sa peau”. In this instance, I think we can upgrade the compliment to “magnifique”.

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