Down by the Salley gardens

In “The children act” Emma Thompson and Fionn Whitehead, playing a judge and a sick boy, duet on Down by the Salley Gardens, a folk song whose words were written by Yeats. It’s a very engaging scene. Emma sings and Fionn plays the guitar.

In the last part of the movie Emma plays the piano and sings alone the same song while the boy is dying with leukemia. The interpretation is poignant and moving.

“Playing the piano at the same time as singing, that was a lot of rehearsal. That took me six months to really get that under my skin. It was really scary, but there’s a tentative quality to it which I really liked because there’s a risk involved when you’re playing and singing live. You ‘re going to make mistakes, and those mistakes contain a lot of the emotion of that scene” Emma said.

Down by the salley gardens
my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish,
with her would not agree.

In a field by the river
my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder
she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
and now am full of tears.

Fiona Maye and her clerk Nigel Pauling

Brief exchange between the High Court judge Fiona Maye and her trusted and flawless clerk Nigel Pauling, in a moment of pause, as they prepare to leave for work, and she thinks back to when she was young and carefree.

“Have you ever been wild and free, Nigel?” Fiona asks.

“No, never, thank God,” he replies.

Emma Thompson and Jason Watkins – The children act
Emma Thompson and Jason Watkins – The children act

Emma Thompson and…

Fionn Whitehead!

Fionn Whitehead

Emma and Fionn Whitehead have said that they formed a special bond while filming the movie The Children Act.

The dynamic about and between Emma Thompson and Fionn Whitehead constitutes the film’s intensity. She plays an irreproachable but yet very human judge who sees her life intertwined with a very involving judicial case concerning a young Jeovah’s witness who refuses blood transfusion. He feels a strong attraction to her because she listens to him, she represents the outside world, made of questions, music and poetry. She introduces him to Yeats poems and he likes being young and foolish.

Whitehead shares his admiration for Thompson. “She’s a lovely human being and a safe pair of hands,” he tells “I felt so comfortable around her and we got along like a house on fire. Both the book and the film are at the most basic level about human connection. That was the easiest thing to do with Emma because she’s so giving and open.”

“Every scene we had felt like it had an incredibly high level of distress and emotion, plus a lot never felt like they had a definite ending. But it was made so much easier by having Emma around – she was so loving and kind. It was really great to be able to talk to her openly and chat and joke around and everything to defuse the tension at the end of the day”.

Before we started, we did a few rehearsals and got a bit of time to hang out and chat. I went to her house and she made me breakfast one day with Richard Eyre. That was really amazing, just to be able to get to know each other before we stepped on set. I always think that the more you know someone, the better you’ll be able to act together. We talked about the script, talked about the role but we also told each other how we were and had some food together. I couldn’t have asked for more from her – on or off set.”

Scene comparisons (1993 vs 2017)

The years go by, her acting becomes more conscious and thrilling but Emma completely inhabits the characters she plays from the inside and so some body movements and gestures remain the same even after so many years. For instance, these two photos show the way she bites or purses her lips when she’s thoughtful.

1 – Miss Kenton – The remains of the day (1993)

2 – Fiona Maye – The children act (2017)

Emma Thompson scene comparisons

Emma Thompson Top 5

This is my personal ranking of the 5 best roles played by Emma.

Do you agree? Please, let me know which one do you prefer and why.

1 – Miss Kenton – The remains of the day (1993)

Head housekeeper at Darlington Hall.

She developes an emotional relationship with the butler, Mr Stevens, who rather hides and overlooks his feelings.

She realizes Mr Stevens’ blind trust in Lord Darlington and often faces him with harsh words.

She loves him (and he probably reciprocates her love) but they are unable to express their feelings. Lovelorn struggle is a heavy burden to stand so eventually she makes a rash decision to spite him and this will sadly lead their lives to unhappiness.

2 – Fiona Maye – The children act (2017)

Leading High Court judge.

She is a smart career-oriented woman who neglected her husband for work.

She is called on to decide the fate of a 17-year-old boy Jehovah’s Witness who, for religious reasons, refuses a blood transfusion.

She decides to visit him in hospital and this encounter will change their lives.

3 – P. L. Travers – Saving Mr Banks (2013)

Author of Mary Poppins.

Shrew, annoying, hard to please, flies to Los Angeles to negotiate the sale of Mary Poppins’ rights to Walt Disney.

She is complicated, contradictory and inconsistent but she is also a vulnerable creature; she befriends Ralph, her personal driver but, above all, the only American she doesn’t hate.

4 – Katherine Newbury – Late night (2019)

Popular talk show host.

Her show is in decline and she tries to revitalize it by hiring a young Indian woman.

She is despotic and overbearing but also ironic and witty.

This is a funny character to play. Emma Thompson truly seems like a born talk-show host.

5 – Margaret Schlegel – Howards End (1992)

Intellectual woman of the early 1900s.

She is profoundly forgiving and understanding, passionate about art, literature and political discussions, friendly and cheerful.

She spends her days in intellectual conversations aided by her wealthy inheritance.

She takes care of her younger siblings, Helen and Tibby, taking on the role of a mother figure and she marries a pragmatic close-minded businessman not inclined to philosophy and literature.

This character earned Emma the Oscar for the best leading actress.

The greatness of an actor

I think Richard Eyre is right when he says that no other actors in the world could play dramatic roles the way Emma does it.

Please, take a look at the scene which is the core of the whole movie “The children act”. Emma (Fiona Maye) is reached by the young man who has fallen in love with her and is stalking her. The boy almost makes a monologue and she listens to him, while the director squeezes on her face with a powerful close-up. No other actor do this so well. No one could convey so many different moods in a five minutes scene.

Emma Thompson – The children act

They both feel a swirl of emotions but he shows them with the ardor of a teenager, she tries to keep emotions at bay using rationality instead. Emma speaks with her eyes, all is written on her face: at first she feels concern and shows disappointment, then turmoil and embarrassment, finally tenderness and almost love mixed with sadness because she must send him off.

I really think she is a genius! She thrills the audience, that’s the greatness of an actor! She is always in touch with her soul and this makes her so distinctive and unique.

It’s fascinating to watch Emma when she is not speaking.

Everything that happens around her, affects her intensely and you can read it on her face, as if what she sees and what she hears struck her face, sometimes softly sometimes harshly.

“The way you have of listening, of thinking, I watched you thinking”

This is a quote from the film, which Adam (Fionn Whitehead) pronounces referring to Fiona (Emma Thompson) listening to him.

This clearly explains what it feels like in front of such a good performer!

When she gives life to a character, it’s not hers anymore but this character becomes like a real person with a life of its own that belongs to the audience, giving the viewer the chance to possess it and make it live and act each time the viewer wants, again and again.

Emma Thompson – The children act

I can enjoy Emma’s smile whenever I want, all I have to do is press a botton and start the movie and the game is done!

She plays for me, I can enjoy the depth of her gaze, the sweetness of her smile, the sound of her voice. I can do it hundreds of times by rewinding the scene. This is so great, it’s a miracle!