Total Recall

Emma Thompson's 10 Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Beauty and the Beast star.

by | March 15, 2017 | Comments

Emma Thompson‘s done a ton of great work throughout her distinguished career, and taken on a wide variety of roles, but she’s never played a singing teapot in a tale as old as time — until now, that is. In honor of Thompson’s appearance as Mrs. Potts in this weekend’s live-action Beauty and the Beast remake, we decided to take a fond look back at some of the brightest critical highlights from her fine filmography, and you know what that means: it’s time for Total Recall!

10. Primary Colors (1998) 81%

Based on a thinly fictionalized account of the 1992 presidential campaign written by Joe Klein (who hid, for a time, behind the nom de plume “Anonymous”), and featuring cameos by Geraldo Rivera, Charlie Rose, Larry King, and Bill Maher as themselves, 1998’s Primary Colors could easily have been overshadowed by the real-life circus that followed Bill Clinton’s administration during both of his terms — but director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May had been a creative team for decades, and their comfort with one another, as well as a terrific cast, made Colors one of the better-reviewed films of the year. Thompson, tasked with providing a thinly disguised version of Hillary Clinton that was still layered enough to make sense in an ostensibly grounded drama, passed with flying colors; as Stanley Kauffmann wrote for the New Republic, “Sheerly as film, Primary Colors generally sizzles.”

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9. Dead Again (1991) 83%

An ambitious blend of romantic melodrama and neo-noir with supernatural overtones, Dead Again found Thompson and co-star/director Kenneth Branagh playing dual roles in a fairly complex story about a detective who stumbles across a mute amnesia victim who may or may not have been his wife in a past life. The end result could easily have spiraled into soggy schmaltz or mystical mumbo-jumbo, but Dead Again ultimately kept enough of its plates spinning to draw impressive praise from the majority of critics — including Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, who wrote, “As the twists come thick and fast and the plot gets progressively more and more baroque, Branagh shows himself to be at least as intelligent as Brian De Palma in delivering over-the-top stylistic filigree.”

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8. The Harry Potter Franchise

The Harry Potter movies offered blockbuster franchise employment for a Who’s Who of British actors — including Thompson, who put in three tours of duty as the prophecy-dispensing Hogwarts professor of Divination, Sybill Trelawney. First appearing in 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Thompson returned for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix three years later — and then helped usher out the series by reprising her role during the climactic Battle of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. “In the 10 years since Harry’s first big- screen close-up, the spell has never been broken,” wrote the Denver Post’s Lisa Kennedy. “And we Muggles have been made better for the magic.”

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7. The Tall Guy (1990) 89%

Ex-pat adventure, story within a story, expertly acted romantic comedy — 1990’s The Tall Guy is all of these things, with Jeff Goldblum in the title role as an American actor with a starring gig in a long-running London comedy revue. Overtaken with a case of allergies, he falls for a nurse (Thompson), loses his job, and ends up landing a musical adaptation of The Elephant Man — and that isn’t really even the half of the oddball shenanigans in this production, which marked the feature debut of screenwriter Richard Curtis (not to mention director Mel Smith). It was all probably a little too left-field for mainstream audiences, but it proved a consistent favorite with critics. “This movie is right about a great many things,” wrote Roger Ebert. “One of them being that there is a market for comedy among people who were not born yesterday.”

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6. Much Ado About Nothing (1993) 90%

Kenneth Branagh’s second Shakespeare adaptation, Much Ado united a colorful cast (including Thompson, Keanu Reeves, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Keaton, and Branagh himself) to tell the tale of warring half-brothers (Reeves and Denzel Washington) whose squabbling serves as the backdrop to the star-crossed affairs of a group of friends, nobles, and relatives that includes former lovers Beatrice (Thompson) and Benedick (Branagh). As with most Shakespeare adaptations, Much Ado didn’t make many waves outside the traditional arthouse crowd, but for the folks who saw it, it proved a deft, smartly rearranged version of one of the Bard’s lighter plays. Though some scribes took issue with the film’s eclectic cast, for most critics, its flaws were minor; in the words of the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson, “Director Branagh, who altered the play imaginatively for the screen, gives wonderful import to this silliness from long ago.”

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5. Howards End (1992) 94%

For a couple of years in the early ’90s, it seemed like Thompson and Anthony Hopkins ruled the arthouse — and it started with 1992’s Howards End, a period drama adapted by the award-winning Merchant Ivory filmmaking duo from the E. M. Forster novel. Here, Thompson (who earned a Best Actress Oscar for her work) stars opposite Hopkins as a couple whose love affair blooms against the backdrop of upheaval in the British class system during the early 20th century — and threatens to be derailed by old secrets and machinations surrounding the titular estate. Calling it “Elegant and powerful, accommodating collisions of class and temperament with the grace of a perfect Edwardian hostess,” Time’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Howards End is the work to which all Merchant Ivory’s other films have pointed and aspired.”

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4. In the Name of the Father (1993) 94%

Thompson earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her work as a crusading defense attorney in this fact-based historical drama, which found writer-director Jim Sheridan dramatizing the travails of Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis), an Irishman falsely convicted as one of the so-called “Guildford Four” after a 1974 pub bombing carried out by the IRA. While some who were familiar with the real-life details of the case took issue with In the Name of the Father‘s historical inaccuracies, critics overwhelmingly felt it held up as a thrilling and affecting viewing experience; as Kenneth Turan wrote for the Los Angeles Times, the end result holds up as “a model of … engaged, enraged filmmaking, a politically charged Fugitive that uses one of the most celebrated cases of recent British history to steamroller an audience with the power of rousing, polemical cinema.”

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3. The Remains of the Day (1993) 95%

Adapted from the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, Remains tells the story of an implacable butler (Anthony Hopkins) and the comparatively hot-tempered housekeeper who grows to love him (Thompson) during their years together in a pre-World War II British estate. Not the stuff of blockbuster epics, obviously, but it picked up eight Academy Award nominations, gave Thompson the opportunity to wring incredible drama from an act as simple as a glance, and reaffirmed her status as one of the few stars capable of making the jump between the megaplex and the arthouse. Among Remains‘ many appreciative critics was Variety’s Todd McCarthy, who wrote, “All the meticulousness, intelligence, taste and superior acting that one expects from Merchant Ivory productions have been brought to bear.”

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2. Sense and Sensibility (1995) 97%

Jane Austen’s books have inspired countless films, but with 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, director Ang Lee proved there was still cinematic gold yet to be spun from her stories. Working from an Oscar-winning screenplay by Emma Thompson (who also starred as the noble Elinor Dashwood), Lee offered a faithful representation of Austen’s 1811 novel about the financial and romantic aftershocks that reverberate through a landed British family after their patriarch passes away. Bolstered by an excellent cast that also included Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman, Sensibility resonated with Jeanne Aufmuth of the Palo Alto Weekly, who echoed the sentiments of the vast majority of her peers when she asked, “Enduring love, heartbreak, undying passion and bitter betrayal. What more could you ask from Jane Austen, and for that matter, from a film?”

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1. Henry V (1989) 100%

Want to star in a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V? You can always take a page from Kenneth Branagh’s book and take the director’s gig, then cast yourself in the title role. Thankfully, there’s a lot more than ego at play in Branagh’s Henry V, which found him making his directorial debut while surrounding himself with an impeccable cast that included Emma Thompson, Judi Dench, Ian Holm, and Robbie Coltrane. In fact, while a decently mounted Shakespeare adaptation is always a pretty safe ticket to the Fresh side of the Tomatometer, critics were unanimous in their praise for Branagh’s Bard; as Hal Hinson breathlessly enthused for the Washington Post, “Everything about this remarkable production is exhilaratingly unexpected.”

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