NEW YORK — Emma Thompson is pausing to have a conniption.
This is the real McCoy, an up-from-the- gut bellow of exasperation. Her forehead, usually a creaseless plane of goodwill, scrunches up like a vexed accordion. Smoke rises, the invisible kind that occurs when boundaries have been trespassed.
The Oscar-winning empress of high-tea cinema ("Howards End," "The Remains of the Day," "Carrington") is in a snit because she has come to talk about Exhibit A and has been asked about Exhibit X. Exhibit A is "Sense and Sensibility," Ang Lee's ebullient screen version of the Jane Austen novel in which Thompson both stars and makes a formidable screenwriting debut (it opens Wednesday). The incendiary Exhibit X is her October separation from actor-director Kenneth Branagh after six years of marriage.
At that time, Thompson dispensed with a hovering media by making a press statement outside their home. Dressed in a to-hell-with-it ensemble of sweats and sneakers, she managed to inject a wry note into an otherwise strung-out scene. It was classic Thompson: Throughout "Sense and Sensibility," as in her own life, Austen's adapter is careful to deflate any potential bathos with an artfully placed zinger.
Six weeks later, wrapped in the cocoon of a Park Avenue hotel suite and looking thoroughly modern in a black pantsuit, the 36-year-old actress is asked how she is feeling in her singleness. A line has been crossed--probably for the umpteenth time in a publicity-packed weekend--and she will have none of it.
"I can't begin to discuss it," she begins quietly. "I didn't approve of being invaded by the press and don't appreciate being asked what it's like by people I don't know, because I wouldn't dream of doing it in return. It's rude. And it's not meant to be rude and I understand why it's done, but I just think that the only way of dealing with it is by reiterating again and again that my personal life is not for public consumption. It is not reasonable to require that of me. And if my life continues to be invaded in this way I will. . . ."
Time out. It should be said that these are not the rantings of a prima donna who revels in bringing the rank and file to her knees. One would be extremely hard-pressed to think of an actor who is as adored, accessible and aware of her humble niche in the cosmos as Thompson. When informed that an elderly gentleman who had come to interview her was told, with Jeeves-like propriety, "Emma Thompson will see you now," she was mortified. Recalling the incident, she whoops hysterically.
Thompson's plea for privacy (say it with a short "i") is especially poignant when considered in the context of her new film. The early 19th century English society of Jane Austen's heroines Elinor Dashwood (played by Thompson) and her younger sister Marianne (Kate Winslet) is a fishbowl environment in which very little goes unnoticed. Gossip is the daily bread for her idle gentry: One can hardly eat or breathe, let alone carry on a courtship, without its being observed and commented on. In short, "Sense and Sensibility" offers an oblique metaphor for the world of a film celebrity.
While Thompson pleads ignorance about that connection, the Cambridge-bred performer does have quite a bit to say on the subject of Austen and the novel's double bind: love and wealth. In her screenplay, Thompson has quite deliberately heightened the social reality implicit in the novel, which is that women in that culture--especially women without money--could never hold the guns.
"I had to make it clearer," she says, pleased that her intentions have come through, "because it's rather difficult to explain to the audience who isn't completely up on the mores and manners of that period that women of this class would not just go and take a job. In 'Emma' there is all that discussion about Jane Fairfax desperately trying to get the job as a governess, which was of course a ghastly position because you were neither a member of the family nor one of the servants--you were in between the two echelons.
"And Austen, even though she's not remotely feminist or writes from that point of view, does give Anne Elliott that speech in 'Persuasion' in which she says that it's all right for men to go off and do things, we just have to sit at home and wait. And that's what they did.
"There is a tremendous realism to Austen, because she was a spinster of the parish, dependent on her relations. And although I don't think she ever felt the pinch, she's very realistic about the fact that love is all very well, but if you've got somebody who loves you and you don't really have the 'competence,' the money to live on, don't think he wouldn't give you up for somebody who does. And you're going to blame him? It's very mordant. And even though it strikes one as all so very romantic, finally it isn't."
Thompson was anxious that this realism would register in her screenplay.