Emma Thompson - 20-year-old punk who became Brideshead matriarch

PUBLISHED: 16:13 09 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:29 07 September 2010

Marianne Gray talks to Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson about her role in a new adaptation of Evelyn Waugh s classic novel Brideshead Revisited We ve waited more than 60 years for the film of Evelyn Waugh s elegiac 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited

Marianne Gray talks to Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson about her role in a new adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's classic novel Brideshead Revisited

We've waited more than 60 years for the film of Evelyn Waugh's elegiac 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited about the decline of the English Catholic aristocracy prior to the Second World War.

This film is a contained and a almost contemporary take on the book and a much briefer screening outing than the 11-hour 1981 Granada TV adaptation, managing to revisit the plot in just over two hours.

It is co-written by Andrew Davies, whose credits include Pride and Prejudice, and Jeremy Brock, who wrote Mrs Brown and The Last King of Scotland, although the book is set in the opulent world of the aristocracy between the wars. It still speaks directly to many of the issues that count as "current": religious fundamentalism, class, sexual tolerance, the pursuit of individualism, aspects that director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots, Becoming Jane) has concentrated on.

Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon play the estranged Lord and Lady Marchmain, and young, hip British actors Matthew Goode is in the Jeremy Irons role of Charles Ryder, Ben Whishaw is the teddybear-carrying Sebastian Flyte and Hayley Atwell is his sister Julia. Greta Scacchi plays Cara, Lord Marchmain's Italian mistress.

Although Emma Thompson possibly has the smallest of the leading roles, it is around these rare appearances of Lady Marchmain that the story hangs.

"Due to Lady Marchmain's ardent belief in a particular brand of deep, abiding English Catholicism, which was very fundamental, unlike Catholicism in Italy or Ireland then, the film's two love stories were not able to work out," says director Jarrold.

"She was in a time warp in her castle, in a sort of hermetically-sealed vacuum. Her husband had lapsed and spent most of his time in Venice with his mistress, while she, Lady Marchmain, stayed home and rigidly enforcing her beliefs on her children. Her emotional methods might have been cruel and dysfunctional but she believes she is doing the right thing by her children otherwise they will go straight to hell.'

Thompson says of her character: "'Marchers', as I call her, was an incredibly complicated character. I think she as brought up by people who withheld all affection in lieu of the love of God, damaging her emotionally, which she then carried on into her own parenting.

"She was a cold woman and I tried to pursue her by understanding the vehemence she felt about doing right by her children. If they didn't do it her way, they'd go to hell, rather like if one of my children ran into the road, they'd get run over.

"We, the cast, had a lot of discussion about family dynamics. I invited my 'children' [Sebastian, Julia, Bridey played by Ed Stoppard, and Cordelia played by Felicity Jones] home for dinner and took them on group outings, even to church, so we could all bond."

The double Oscar-winner and West Hampstead-dwelling actress, like most of the rest of the cast, including the director, had never seen the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.

"I was a 20-year-old punk rocker, trolling around London in a lot of zips," Thompson says, joyfully. "I had read the book but never saw the TV series. I preferred Johnny Rotten.

"It was a struggle playing older, wearing a grey wig, being the mother of grown-up children. It was like looking at my mother in the mirror. Very odd. I was a bit worried about playing the mother and thought the young cast would think I was a dusty old bag and not worth talking to, but they were great.

When asked what feeling she hoped people would leave the film with, she replied with a laugh: "I hope people will leave the film with an urge to down a large vodka martini because it is an emotional experience. It's the sort of film you need to have a drink after watching.

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