Many of us know the agony of divorce. Not as many of us know the agony of a very public divorce. Unfortunately for actress 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 they starred in the romantic thriller Dead Again in 1991, which Branagh directed. As the media obsessed over the couple who would make six movies together, Thompson and Branagh seemed to lose their individual identities. They soon refused to do any interviews together in an effort to preserve 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 up a famous couple and then bringing them down (Brangelina, anyone?). And that’s exactly what happened to the Ken & Em show.
While directing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1994, Branagh had an affair with actress Helena Bonham Carter, who was starring in the film as Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée. It’s easy to understand how floating into the fantasy world of a movie set can make someone lose their moral compass, but it doesn’t make getting cheated on any less difficult. After finding out about the affair, Thompson spiraled into depression. Simple things like getting dressed or leaving the house were beyond her. “It was definitely clinical depression, absolutely,” she told The Times UK. Thompson admits she did a lot of crying, and seeing the story on TV or in the papers only made it worse. “It was tough, I think I probably should have sought professional help long before I actually did for all sorts of reasons,” she said, adding, “Yes, divorce – ghastly, painful business but also fame in some ways ghastly, painful business as well.” But the very 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 courageous decision to adapt Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for the screen. Though it would be challenging given her state of mind, it may very well be the best idea she ever had.
Not only did writing the screenplay give Thompson a reason to get out of bed, it also gave her a chance to reconnect to 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 movie audiences today. It may seem ironic that Thompson would indulge in a story with such a happy, romantic ending just as her marriage was dissolving, but allowing a sense of romance – though fictional – back into her life is exactly what she needed. And that is the magical healing power Jane Austen has brought into our lives over the past two centuries. Austen allows us to dream about love. Whether Thompson knew it consciously or not, writing this screenplay would help her heal in more ways than one.
All of Austen’s heroines are dealing with instability and uncertainty, 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 the death of Elinor’s father in Sense and Sensibility, all three Dashwood sisters are left with no money, making marriage the only viable way to have any type of reputable future. Thompson could no doubt relate to the character of Elinor, considering she had a big problem of her own (instability brought on by her divorce). But Elinor isn’t just a passive gal, waiting for the wealthiest gentleman to stake his claim. Elinor has been forced to roll with the punches and always snaps back. In an article for the BBC, Heloise Woods writes this about Austen’s female characters, “Beyond 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’s certainly plausible that by inhabiting Elinor’s inner world through writing her dialogue and story, Thompson was able to reconnect with her own layer of steel and resilience.
Jane Austen knew how difficult the path 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 screenplay. But just writing it was like an act of rebellion against fame, divorce, Hollywood and most importantly, against depression. According to The Independent, she said, "I can remember the only thing I could do was write… Ken had an old black cashmere dressing gown I'd given him one Christmas, and he was gone – he wasn't living 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 bravely followed it. It would pay off for her tenfold.
Not only was Thompson nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars for her role as Elinor, but she won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay! But there was another reward beyond the gold statue. She met her future husband, actor Greg Wise, on the set of Sense and Sensibility. They married in 2003 and have two children together. According to The Independent, Thompson said, “Work saved me and Greg saved me. He picked up the pieces and put them together again.” Jane Austen herself couldn’t write a happier, more romantic ending.
Take a look at this clip of Thompson accepting the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay where she imagines how Jane Austen would accept the award. Guided by her determination and ability to have a room full of Hollywood heads erupting with laughter, it’s an inspiration to know 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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