Many of us know the pain of divorce. Not many of us know the pain of a very public divorce. Unfortunately for actor and screenwriter Emma Thompson, a very painful, public divorce is exactly what happened to her. She would eventually heal and even remarry, but only after allowing herself to channel one of the greatest romance writers of all time: Jane Austen. After marrying actor / director Kenneth Branagh in 1989, the power couple – then known in the British media as “The Ken & Em show” – rose to meteoric fame after starring in the romantic thriller Dead again in 1991, which Branagh directed. When the media was obsessed with the couple who wanted to make six films together, Thompson and Branagh seemed to lose their individual identities. They soon refused to do interviews together in an attempt to maintain their own personal brand. But life can be tough in the spotlight, as a couple or as an individual, and if Hollywood loves anything, it’s building a famous couple and then bringing them down (Brangelina, anyone?). And that’s exactly what happened to the Ken & Em show.
Under instruction Mary Shelleys Frankenstein in 1994, Branagh had an affair with the actress Helena Bonham Carter, who starred in the film as Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancé. It’s easy to understand how it can make someone lose their moral compass to flow into the fantasy world of a movie set, but that does not make it any less difficult to be cheated. After finding out about the affair, Thompson went into a depression. Simple things like getting dressed or leaving the house were her outside. “It was definitely clinical depression,” she told The Times UK. Thompson admits she cried a lot and seeing the story on TV or in the newspapers only made it worse. “It was hard, I think I probably should have sought professional help long before, I actually did it for all sorts of reasons,” she said, adding, “Yes, divorce – cruel, painful business, but also fame on some ways gruesome, painful business as well. ” But precisely the qualities that brought Thompson fame and success – her determination and resilience – were also the qualities that could help her get out of her dark place. Thompson made the brave decision to adapt Jane Austens Reason and Sensitivity for the screen. While that would be challenging considering her state of mind, it may very well be the best idea she’s ever had.
Not only did writing the script give Thompson a reason to get out of bed, it also gave her a chance to reconnect with the Regency writer she knew and loved from her youth, taking her back to happier times. Jane Austen is synonymous with romance and still delights readers and film audiences today. It may seem ironic that Thompson would indulge in a story with such a happy, romantic ending, just as her marriage was about to dissolve, but allowing a sense of romance – albeit fictitious – back into her life is accurate, what she needed. And that’s the magical healing power Jane Austen has brought into our lives over the last two centuries. Austen allows us to dream of love. Whether Thompson knew it consciously or not, writing this script would help her heal in more ways than one.
All of Austen’s heroines deal with instability and insecurity, which was often the case for women in the 19th century. Elinor Dashwood, the character Thompson would play in the film, is no different. After Elinor’s father’s death in Reason and Sensitivity, all three Dashwood sisters are left without money, making marriage the only viable way to have any kind of reputable future. Thompson could no doubt relate to Elinor’s character as she had a major problem of her own (instability caused by her divorce). But Elinor is not just a passive girl waiting for the richest gentleman to bet on her claim. Elinor has been forced to roll with the blows and always strikes back. In an article for the BBC, Heloise Woods writes this about Austen’s female characters: “In addition to their preoccupation with love and romance, there is a layer of steel and a celebration of resilience in her books that may well inspire us as we read them. ” A “layer of steel and celebration of resilience” is exactly what anyone with a broken heart (like Thompson at the time) needs. It is certainly plausible that by inhabiting Elinor’s inner world through writing her dialogue and story, Thompson was able to reconnect to his own layer of steel and resilience.
Jane Austen knew how difficult the road to becoming a writer was for many reasons. It took over a decade for her to get her first story published. It took Thompson five years to write (and rewrite) the script. But just writing it was like a rebellion against fame, divorce, Hollywood and most importantly, against depression. According to The Independent, she said: “I remember the only thing I could do was write … Ken had an old black cashmere bathrobe, I had given him a Christmas and he was gone – he did not live at home – and I used to put it on and crawl from the bedroom to the computer and sit and write. ” Thompson had an instinct and followed it bravely, it would pay off ten times over for her.
Not only was Thompson nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Oscars for her role as Elinor, but she also won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay! But there was another reward beyond the gold statue. She met her future husband, actress Greg Wise, on the set of Reason and Sensitivity. They got married in 2003 and have two children together. According to The Independent, Thompson said, “The work saved me, and Greg saved me. He picked up the pieces and put them back together.” Jane Austen herself could not write a happier, more romantic ending.
Take a look at this clip of Thompson receiving the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, where she imagines how Jane Austen would receive the award. Guided by her determination and ability to have a space filled with Hollywood heads bursting out laughing, it is an inspiration to know that she went through hard times but came out of the darkness with so much joy. Cheers to you, Emma Thompson!
As Evan Peters once said, “Thank you Kate Winslet for being Kate Winslet”!
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