To paraphrase Jane Austen, it should be a truth generally acknowledged that Emma Thompson can Do No Wrong. Whether hidden under layers of disfiguring make-up in Nanny McPhee, or beneath a ridiculous mop of hair in one of the Harry Potter movies, or even as a thinly-veiled Hilary Clinton in Primary Colors, Thompson always produces a subtle and nuanced performance. The quiet intelligence of her acting elevates the mundane to the meaningful, and turns any meaningful scene into a truly remarkable work of art.
Thompson’s performance in Last Chance Harvey is no exception. But what does it mean that, in an early scene—in which Kate cries in a pub bathroom—is a near-duplicate of a scene in another Thompson movie: Love Actually? Does Our Em have feet of clay? Has she taken a shortcut and copied earlier work in a kind of self-plagiarism? Or has she tapped into something fundamentally true about a woman crying, and is her do-over just a repetition of that truth?
The bathroom scene occurs fairly early on in the film, before she meets Dustin Hoffman’s Harvey Shine whose last chance—and surely best—she is. Thompson’s Kate Walker is suffering through a double date gone wrong: the other couple has left her with a man younger enough than Kate to seem from another generation. He runs into friends at the pub and, over the next few moments, during which Kate answers another one of her mother’s frequent telephone calls, he gradually pairs up with one of the women, leaving Kate politely and quietly alone. She escapes to the bathroom and begins to cry—or, rather, not to cry. She holds it together just in time, and then reaches over to tinker with the toilet-paper roll, setting it straight. Then she gathers herself further. All the while, you can see the struggle in this woman between her awareness that she has unintentionally been made a fool of, and the pride that won’t allow her to acknowledge that fact. It is the kind of moment that only the best can pull off with such transparency.
The killer is that gesture with the toilet paper. It’s that momentary concern with order—as if one’s life is not going down the toilet—that gives Thompson away as a copier of her own earlier work (and suggests that what she brings to the screen has little to do with whoever is directing her—in this case, Joel Hopkins). In Love Actually, the relevant scene appears towards the end of the film, when Thompson unwraps a Christmas gift from her husband (Alan Rickman) only to realize that it is not the gold bracelet she knows he has bought. Rickman has bought the bracelet for another woman, but he has given Thompson something genuinely thoughtful and kind: a cd of Joni Mitchell, “the woman” Thompson says earlier “who taught your cold English wife how to feel.”
She escapes to her bedroom, puts the cd on, and tries to hold herself together. It’s a beautiful scene. Mitchell’s smoke-and-wisdom deepened voice (another do-over, with an orchestra replacing the young Mitchell’s steel-string guitar) is the perfect score for Thompson’s suppressed emotional collapse. And it turns this moment in Richard Curtis’ music-laden movie into a kind of opera.
But, as in Last Chance Harvey, once again Thompson’s character has been unintentionally made a fool of, and she struggles with pain and pride and simple grief. Once again, as she pulls herself together, her attention goes to setting things in order: she bends down and straightens the blanket on the bed before suppressing the new wave of sadness that the domestic gesture evokes in her.
Does this doing over make the scene in Last Chance Harvey a kind of actor’s cheating? Is it unfair for Thompson to mimic her previous performance if both iterations make perfect emotional sense? What do you think?