Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Last Chance Harvey: Thompson's Do-Over?

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?


  1. Actors always seem to find some character trait, a tick to keep their hands or feet busy while their talking. Kind of like writers, who get in a rut and write certain types of characters and scenes the same way. It could be argued that her gestures are well-earned shorthand for illustrating emotion. I say, if she does it again in another movie, she's starting to cheat.

  2. Fair enough. We'll keep track. Will her character in the next Harry Potter movie have a crying scene, I wonder?

    If Thompson's gestures are a "well-earned shorthand", though, does that mean that they aren't true? Because I do think that her way of crying/not crying is very realistic and believable.

  3. I guess I mean that after you do something for a while, you learn how to achieve the same thing in a shorter time. Not a bad thing, just shortcuts and experience.

    I'd like to take this opportunity to correct my spelling in the first comment: they're, not their.

  4. Yes, I think that's true. A good actor will come up with truer, more efficient ways to convey emotion. And I think that's definitely true of writers as well. You learn to get more across with less, no matter what your style. Even someone who writes in a long-clause, Jamesian style will find ways to pare down as he or she gets better.

    Along these lines, I was reading something about Kate Winslet in Time magazine today that describes a moment when she asked the screenwriter to cut a line because she didn't need to say the words. Could do it with her eyes instead.,8599,1880401,00.html

  5. I don't think it's a cop-out on the part of the actor, unless it's done far too often. But if it's done too often, then the actor has likely become a caricature, a character actor of a certain type, given roles in which the character is likely to do X in a given situation.

    But to the writer analogy: If you were to notice that, say, Wallace Stegner wrote gestures or traits of a woman so similarly from one book to another, would you say he was plagiarizing himself? Or maybe that he was honing a style? In All the Little Live Things, his Marian is so like Charity in his later Crossing to Safety, it's as if he were testing the waters, or just starting to work something through. It’s a much sharper portrait in Crossing to Safety.

    As Dell said, if it were to come up a third time, that might be cheating. But in this case I think it’s because drawing an entire character is such a larger endeavor than a single gesture, so maybe that comparison doesn’t work. Maybe a better one is a writer's inclination to overuse a certain word or metaphor in a certain situation. And in that case, it doesn’t bother me. Actually, it tends to make me feel like I'm part of the writer's inner circle, that I know his/her work well enough to notice foibles that way.

  6. For the gestures, Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson come immediately to mind as actors who do the same thing in role after role. Nicholson slipped into self-caricature years ago, and Cruise is certainly headed in that direction.

    I suppose the writing analogy to this kind of repetitive acting would be if a writer did much more than what you're saying Stegner does in those two novels (I've only read Angle of Repose)--for instance, if he used the same words and phrases. I think it's one thing for a writer to return to characters who are similar; we're all going to tend to be interested in exploring particular types of people. And with luck and hard work, we'll get better at doing it as we go along! But it's another thing for a writer (and thankfully, I haven't ever seen this) to do that by using the verbal equivalent of the same gestures.