Emma Thompson is the two-time Oscar-winning multi-hyphenate who has left her indelible mark as an actress and a writer for more than 30 years. Let’s take a look back at 18 of her greatest films, ranked worst to best.
Born on April 15, 1959, in Paddington, London, England, Thompson broke through with American audiences thanks to her Oscar-winning lead turn in the sumptuous Merchant-Ivory production “Howards End” (1992). She reunited with the filmmakers – along with her costar Anthony Hopkins – for “The Remains of the Day” (1993), which brought her a second Best Actress bid. That same year, she competed in the supporting category for “In the Name of the Father,” pulling off the rare feat of snagging two acting nominations in the same year. She returned to the Oscar race both as a performer and as a writer for the Jane Austin adaptation “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), for which she earned a Best Actress nomination and won the Best Adapted Screenplay prize.
In addition to her Oscar success, Thompson has won three BAFTAs out of seven nominations, two Golden Globes out of 10 bids and one Primetime Emmy out of seven noms. She’s also got six SAG bids and a Writers Guild Award for “Sense and Sensibility.” So in short, she’s collected some serious hardware (as well as Dame-hood from Queen Elizabeth in 2018).
Tour our photo gallery of Thompson’s greatest films, and see where your favorite ranks.
18. THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) (2017)
Writer/Director: Noah Baumbach. Starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman.
This Netflix production has plenty of familial entanglements afoot as Sandler’s Danny Meyerowitz moves in with his retired art professor father Harold (Hoffman) and his tipsy and hippie-ish fourth wife Maureen (Thompson), who favors muumuus as apparel. This is a dysfunctional clan overflowing with grudges, grievances and gripes. The men in the family mostly steal the show. A critic declared this outing to be multiple rounds of family drama and long-standing feuds. Thompson is rarely less than good but the males on the screen monopolize the action.
17. IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER (1993)
Director: Jim Sheridan. Writer: Terry George. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Postelthwaite, John Lynch.
In this fervor-filled true story about a 15-year miscarriage of justice, Day-Lewis stars as Gerry Conlon, who along with three other men is wrongly accused of a IRA bombing that killed five in England. His hated father ends up in jail as well and they forge a bond after being cell mates. Thompson is Conlon’s lawyer who eventually finds the hidden evidence she needs to free her client. This big-screen account was accused of playing fast and loose with facts, but that did not stop it from being nominated seven Oscars, including a supporting nom for Thompson. The film went away empty-handed, but the attention gave the actress a boost while she also competed as a lead in “The Remains of the Day” the same year.
16. NANNY MCPHEE (2005)
Director: Kirk Jones. Writer: Emma Thompson. Starring: Colin Firth, Kelly Macdonald, Celia Imrie.
No spoonful of sugar here. This somewhat grotesque storybook-based variation on “Mary Poppins,” about a magical if hideous-looking caretaker who takes charge of widower Firth’s seven unruly, motherless children, was a nine-year passion project for Thompson, both as its star and screenwriter. As her character tells her hellion charges, “When you need me but don’t want me, I’ll stay. When you want me but no longer need me, I’ll go.” The family film did well enough to deserve a sequel, 2010’s “Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang,” but plans were dropped for a third outing.
15. PRIMARY COLORS (1998)
Director: Mike Nichols. Writer: Elaine May. Starring: John Travolta, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates.
This “film a clef,” based on Joe Klein’s best-seller about a fictional Arkansas governor (Travolta) who runs for president and his formidable wife and future first lady (Thompson), riffed off of the intrigues and scandals that marked Clinton’s first campaign. The team of Nichols and May milked much sardonic humor from the behind-the-scenes manipulations of a political team coping with a candidate who is facing charges of adultery. Thompson, handling an American accent with semi-aplomb, and the rest of the cast gathered fine notices. But the movie could not compete with real-life headlines and TV coverage about the POTUS’ affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
14. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993)
Director and writer: Kenneth Branagh. Starring: Branagh, Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington.
Thompson had a small role in her then-husband’s much-acclaimed big-screen debut as a Shakespearian leading man and director, 1989’s “Henry V.” He was treated as Olivier’s heir, receiving Oscar nods for his acting and directing. But for many critics, her verbal jousting as Beatrice bested Branagh’s hammy declarations as the arrogant Benedick in the Bard’s dark battle-of-the-sexes comedy. “Rolling Stone” critic Peter Travers described her as “an actress of unflagging elegance. Even in thick pancake makeup, she’s an enchanting Beatrice, with a sharp wit that is never merely shrewish.” Vincent Canby of “The New York Times” was similarly taken, describing her as “an especially desirable, unstoppable life force.”
13. GOOD LUCK TO YOU, LEO GRANDE (2022)
Director: Sophie Hyde. Writer: Katy Brand. Starring: Emma Thompson, Daryl McCormack.
This is a true two-hander starring Thompson as Nancy Stokes, a widow who never had an orgasm and has vowed to never to fake one ever again. Her late husband was her only sexual partner and they only did the missionary position for 31 years together. She decides to hire a hunky male sex worker to finally see what she has been missing. Nancy prepares an erotic bucket list of sexual activity, including performing fellatio on Leo and he returns the favor as he performs oral sex on her. She eventually shares her real name, Susan Robinson, and she also learns Leo’s real name is Connor. A review in the “New York Times” described the film as “a tart and tender probe into sex and intimacy, power dynamics and human connection.” Here’s to Thompson, bravely exposing her 63-year-old body on the big screen.
12. BRIDGET JONES’S BABY (2016)
Director: Sharon Maguire. Writers: Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer, Thompson. Starring: Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey.
No one was expecting much from this third go-round with Zellweger as the now-40ish British singleton 12 years after the underwhelming first sequel, “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.” But with Maguire, the director of 2001’s ”Bridget Jones’s Diary,” returning and Thompson doing double duty as an Bridget’s droll obstetrician as well as doing script doctor surgery, critics – including me – were delightfully surprised by the screwball hilarity involving two possible baby daddies (Firth and Dempsey). It is quite amusing how Thompson’s doc goes out of her way to describe Bridget’s pregnancy as “geriatric” every chance she can. And that she always shoos fathers out of the room during labor, noting her ex-husband always left because, as he told her, “It was like watching his favorite pub burn down.”
11. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)
Director: Bill Condon. Writers: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos. Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline.
Disney’s overblown live-action remake of the studio’s 1991 original, the only traditionally animated film to be nominated for Best Picture, could have gone wrong in many different ways. But one of its strong suits was finding the perfect match for the voices of all of the enchanted household objects that befriend Watson’s Belle when she is held captive by Stevens’ surly ram-horned Beast. I had some trepidation about how Thompson could possibly be as magical as Angela Lansbury’s performance as the motherly teapot Mrs. Potts. But she more than managed to warmly warble the Oscar-winning title tune with its “tale as old as time,” when the central couple waltz together and begin to fall in love.
10. THE TALL GUY (1989)
Director: Mel Smith. Writer: Richard Curtis. Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Rowan Atkinson.
Thompson, who got her start as part of an improv troupe and as a stand-up comic, made her feature debut in this amusing showbiz comedy about Goldblum’s straight man, who breaks up with his disagreeable partner (Atkinson) and decides to star in a musical stage version of “The Elephant Man.” As a woo-some twosome, Goldblum and Thompson share a tartly humorous rapport. He and her nurse meet cute when he needs to get allergy shots. Her version of a pick-up line? “Are you going to walk me home? Or should I just get murdered on my own?” Then there is this exchange: Her: “Just dinner?” Him: ”Promise!” Her: “What? No sex at the end?” Him: “Well, maybe – sex? Yes! All right, if you insist!”
9. LATE NIGHT (2019)
Director: Nisha Ganatra. Writer: Mindy Kaling. Starring: Mindy Kaling, Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, John Lithgow, Amy Ryan.
Early on in Amazon’s “Late Night,“ the legendary yet ratings-challenged TV talk show host Katherine Newbury (played by a never-better Emma Thompson) receives a comedy honor – just one of many trophies she has been bestowed with over the years. Afterwards, she gripes to her ailing husband (John Lithgow) on the phone that her Spanx is cutting off her blood supply to her head. Similarly, this “The Devil Wears Prada” for joke writers, which smartly holds a mirror up to current concerns about diversity in the workplace along with gender and age discrimination, could use some editing Spanx to brighten up its pace. That said, Thompson — who in her days at Cambridge University was part of a comedy troupe, Footlights, with the likes of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie – certainly knows how to deliver a zinger. She also brings out the best in difficult, complicated women as well (P.L. Travers comes to mind in “Saving Mr. Banks”). But the heart of this movie resides in its odd-couple pairing of Dame Emma with Mindy Kaling as the first female writer and person of color to be hired for the show. That Kaling wrote the screenplay and also is a producer on the film directed by Ganatra (TV’s “Transparent”) is an example of life imitating art in the best way possible.
8. LOVE ACTUALLY (2003)
Writer and director: Richard Curtis. Starring: Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Alan Rickman.
The granddaddy of all yuletide romantic comedy ensemble pieces. For every moment of comic gold, such as Hugh Grant’s happy dance to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump” and Bill Nighy’s Christmas-y version of “Love Is All Around,” there is some silly business such as when Firth’s author and his non-English-speaking Portugese maid jump into a lake to save his manuscript. But Thompson, who plays Grant’s sensible sister, lends some heart-tugging gravitas to the proceedings when she finds a beautiful necklace that she believes is a Christmas gift to her from her lawyer husband (Rickman). When it is time to open presents, she tries not to signal her disappointment when she unwraps a Joni Mitchell CD instead. She takes her leave and begins to weep their bedroom, realizing the jewelry was meant for another women while a melancholy rendition of Mitchell’s well-known song, “Both Sides Now,” is heard.
7. STRANGER THAN FICTION (2006)
Director: Marc Forster. Writer: Zach Helm. Starring: Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal.
This post-modern, sweet-sad movie is about an IRS agent (Ferrell) with a rather empty existence, who suddenly hears a female novelist’s voice narrating his life in his head. Since what is said is layered with Thompson’s own wry and dry British intonations, he remarks to his shrink, “It’s telling me what I’ve already done. Accurately, and with a better vocabulary.” Her scribe might be smart, but nice she is not – at least not when she is beset with writer’s block. As critic Mick LaSalle opined: “The honesty of Thompson’s performance, its pursuit of quirky, disturbing truths over soft cliches, is typical of the entire movie.” There are laughs, touching scenes that might draw tears and existential ideas to contemplate.
6. AN EDUCATION (2009)
Director: Lone Scherfig. Writer: Nick Hornby. Starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Rosamund Pike.
Mulligan is Jenny, a young, bright British schoolgirl with hopes of attending Oxford University. She becomes involved with an older, seemingly wealthy man (Sarsgaard), who introduces her to his sophisticated world of night clubs, champagne and the like. Soon enough, she discovers he is a fraud, but not before she is warned by Thompson, as her exclusive all-girl school’s headmistress. She tells that her behavior is endangering her future, adding, “Nobody does anything worth doing without a degree.” Feeling all full of herself, Jenny snipes back, “Nobody does anything worth doing WITH a degree. No woman anyway. “Thompson’s impact in just three scenes in this best-pic nominee as a somewhat resentful middle-aged matron who is strangely anti-Semitic is quite something to witness.
5. SAVING MR. BANKS (2013)
Director: John Lee Hancock. Writer: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith. Starring: Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti
This biopic about P.L. Travers, the rather disagreeable author and creator of “Mary Poppins,” has a bipolar screenplay. The best half has Thompson butting heads with Hanks as a cagey Walt Disney, who attempts to woo the curmudgeonly author into letting him turn her literary nanny heroine into a movie star. The other half is in the Australian outback, where Travers grew up with a suicidal mother and a loving but deeply alcoholic father. Thompson, hiding under a brown perm, is at her best when her constant frown is turned upside-down when the composing Sherman brothers finally please her in song. Or when we observe her face register myriad emotions while seeing the fantasy film at its premiere.
4. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)
Director: Alfonso Cuaron. Writer: Steve Kloves. Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Gary Oldman, Emma Watson.
Thompson entered the wizarding world of Harry Potter in the third movie of the eight-film blockbuster fantasy franchise as Hogwarts’ new divination professor and probably one of the funniest of J.K. Rowling’s characters, Sybill Trelawney. She wears large, round eyeglasses that severely magnify her eyes, dresses in boho chic and speaks with a wispy voice. One of her ancestors was a noted seer, but Sybill’s gifts are far less reliable. But Dumbledore recruits her as a teacher because of one prophesy that may come true – the cause of Voldemort’s demise. Her eccentric character, who has foot-in-mouth disease, would return for two other sequels, “The Order of the Phoenix” and “The Deathly Hollows, Part 2.”
3. THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1993)
Director: James Ivory. Writer: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Starring: Anthony Hopkins, James Fox, Christopher Reeve, Hugh Grant.
In flashbacks to the ‘30s. Thompson is all about the drama as kind and friendly housekeeper Miss Kenton, who shares an un-acted-upon attraction to Hopkins’ efficient though repressed butler, Stevens. It soon becomes clear that their employer, Lord Darlington, is a Nazi sympathizer and asks Stevens to fire two German-Jewish maids. When Miss Kenton gives Stevens a chance to make their friendship something more, he refuses to acknowledge her intent. The scene when Thompson cracks and breaks down in tears on her knees, and Hopkins walks in and tells her to do a household chore, is devastating. She and Hopkins were both up for lead acting Oscars and the film got six other nods, including Best Picture.
2. SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1995)
Director: Ang Lee. Writer: Emma Thompson. Starring: Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman.
A widow and her three daughters are denied their inheritance when a half-brother gets it all and their lifestyle is financially diminished. Matrimony is sought for Marianne (Winslet), who is ruled by her emotions, and eldest sister Elinor, who listens to logic. They both have their eyes on potential mates — Grant’s down-to-earth vicar Edward for Elinor, Greg Wise’s dashing Willoughby for Marianne — who are, unfortunately, betrothed to others. Lee, with his first American film, and Thompson , with her first movie script that was written and revised over five years, beat the rush of movie adaptations of Austen novels. “Sense and Sensibility” would receive seven Oscar nods, including Best Picture and Best Actress. Thompson became the first and still only person to win Academy Awards for both script and acting.
1. HOWARDS END (1992)
Director: James Ivory. Writer: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter.
The source of Thompson’s Academy Award win for lead actress – one of nine of its nominations — is Merchant Ivory at their best, a grandly evocative adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel about the clash of the classes in Edwardian England. When wealthy and regal Mrs. Wilcox (Redgrave) decides to bequeath her charming country home to Margaret Schlegel (Thompson), a cultured and liberated middle-class woman who scrapes by with her sister (Bonham Carter) and young brother, her husband (Hopkins) and son (James Wilby) take great offense. They burn the note she scribbled on her death bed, which leads to a series of deceptions. Thompson is the soul of the story while Redgrave is its heart.