Emma Thompson has made peace with Helena Bonham Carter over her affair with ex-husband Kenneth Branagh – setting an example to love rivals everywhere
'There are some friends,” intones Stephen Fry at the beginning of the semi-autobiographical 1992 film Peter’s Friends, starring, among others, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, “you know you will have for the rest of your life. You’re welded together by love, trust, respect, loss or – in our case – embarrassment.”
Oh dear. While two decades on, Fry still commands awe as a polymath and actor, clearly his fortune-telling skills weren’t up to much. Within three years, Thompson and Branagh, who were at the time the golden couple of British acting and whose performances are two of the film’s star turns, had announced that they were separating. And until now, no one had really confirmed why.
In a world of reality TV, celebrity magazines dedicated to following the most fleeting of unions, Twitter break-ups and make-ups, it’s hard to think back 18 years, and to the relative silence that accompanied the Branagh-Thompson split.
At the time, they were two of the biggest names in Britain. Known simply as “Ken and Em”, their relationship invited comparisons with the glamour of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh or even Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Yet despite whispers of Branagh’s “private and complicated” relationship with fellow Brit actor Helena Bonham Carter, and Thompson’s subsequent relationship with (her now husband) Greg Wise, no one was any the wiser.
But this week Thompson has finally lifted the lid on what happened at the end of that union with charm and self-deprecation – and how she used the pain and depression she suffered to carve out an even more successful career for herself.
If revenge, as the late fashion designer Gianni Versace believed, is best served after seven years, then other alpha couples in the throes of painful break-ups could have learnt a lot from the Thompson example.
“[It] is – as Mike Nichols [the director] once said … all blood under the bridge. You can’t hold on to anything like that,” Thompson, said as she finally commented on the Branagh/Bonham Carter affair in an interview this week. “She’s a wonderful woman, Helena.”
Thompson and Branagh had met back in 1987 when they appeared in a mini-series Fortunes of War playing Guy and Harriet Pringle, a newlywed couple who arrive in Bucharest in 1939. Branagh was a former comprehensive pupil from Reading; Thompson was part of a theatrical dynasty (her mother, Phyllida Law, was a classical actress; her father Eric Thompson wrote and narrated The Magic Roundabout) and at Cambridge acted in Footlights with Fry and Hugh Laurie. Their circle would dominate British acting in the late Eighties and Nineties.
Two years after meeting, they married in a lavish £30,000 ceremony at Cliveden with Brian Blessed as best man and Judi Dench, Ben Elton and Richard Briers among the guests. They carried their union on to their professional life, working together on projects such as Dead Again and Peter’s Friends.
Even after Thompson was described by the New York Times as an “international success almost overnight” for her role in Howards End (for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress in 1993, and in which Bonham Carter also starred – as Thompson’s sister), she returned to acting with Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing, in which they played Benedick and Beatrice.
But cracks were forming. At the same time as his wife’s star was rising in Hollywood with Remains of the Day and In the Name of the Father, Branagh was struggling to make a success of his first big-budget film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which he played Frankenstein and Bonham Carter his fiancée and adoptive sister.
It seems that the Ken and Em show was already in trouble – competing schedules, too much time away from each other – even before the affair with Bonham Carter, which is believed to have started on the Frankenstein set in 1994.
And yet the split would prove a miracle for Thompson’s professional and private life, transforming her from north London luvvie to national treasure. Miserable, depressed, she would crawl to the computer in – it’s said – the same dirty dressing gown every day to complete the screenplay for Ang Lee’s film Sense and Sensibility (she went on to win a second Oscar in 1995 for it; she is the only person to have won Academy Awards for both acting and writing).
On set, she also found a new husband in the handsome Greg Wise; nearly 20 years later they are still going strong, and have a daughter Gaia and an informal adoptive son, Tindyebwa Agaba, a former Rwandan child soldier. Today, Bonham Carter is in a long-term relationship with Tim Burton, the filmmaker, while Branagh married Lindsay Brunnock, an art director, in 2003.
Thompson managed to utilise the pain at the death of her marriage in one of her most acclaimed performances – that of Karen in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually, who suspects her husband of infidelity. “I’ve had so much bloody practice at crying in a bedroom, then having to go out and be cheerful, gathering up the pieces of my heart and putting them in a drawer,” she once said.
Now, when questioned about Bonham Carter, she can even joke about it. Asked whether the situation had not been tricky because the two actresses seem quite similar, she replied: “Oh we are. Being slightly mad and a bit fashion-challenged. Perhaps that’s why Ken loved us both… Helena and I made our peace years and years ago.”
Of course, for most mortals, waiting 18 years to say anything about the break-up of a marriage – and then being generous about it – seems an impossible challenge. Who can blame Jennifer Aniston for taking to the pages of Vanity Fair and US Vogue to make clear her hurt and betrayal after Brad Pitt left her for Angelina Jolie? (Aniston lambasted her former husband as lacking a “sensitivity chip” and said that the fact the affair appeared to have happened on set before her marriage broke down was deeply distressing. “That stuff about how [Angelina] couldn’t wait to get to work every day? That was really uncool.”
Or, indeed, entrepreneur Tamara Mellon, who recently described her drug-addict ex-husband as “damaged goods”, who couldn’t manage to read a comic book, and that their relationship was “like being married to a child”?
Jo Wood was humiliated by her Rolling Stone husband Ronnie – keeping him sober only to see him start a relationship with a 19-year-old when he was in his sixties – and promptly sold her story about him spending the kids’ school fees on a Rolex.
But however delicious revenge might seem at the time, who suffers in the end?
The problem is that you end up being forever linked to the ex you grew to loathe. Two decades on, how does Margaret Cook feel about her devastating remarks about former foreign secretary Robin Cook? He left her after an affair with his secretary, while she went on to publish a book detailing the shortcomings of their love life and the six alleged lovers he had taken, as well as detailing his alcohol consumption. She insists she did it to avoid being seen as a victim, but added earlier this year: “Revenge and vindictiveness have an immediate reward but no lasting benefit.”
Or what about Anthea Turner, who famously declared that “men don’t leave happy marriages” when Grant Bovey left his wife Della for her, only to find history repeating itself more than a decade on, when Bovey found another vivacious blonde to take up with?
It can even damage your professional life – French president François Hollande’s credibility has not fully recovered since late last year, when he found himself in the middle of a furious row on Twitter (where else?) between his current partner Valérie Trierweiler and his ex, Ségolène Royal. Monsieur Normale became an object of derision.
While for most it would be unthinkable to utter the words “wonderful woman” for the Other Woman – or indeed channel heartbreak into acclaimed rom-com performances – for those who can’t face the Thompson decision to button it, think only of these two words: Vicky Pryce. Her attempts to seek revenge on her husband Chris Huhne and his new lover Carina Trimingham ended up with both Pryce and Huhne disgraced and in prison.
Now that sounds like the beginning of an Oscar-winning screenplay – eh, Emma?