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Emma Thompson charms Jon Stewart

Emma Thompson looked swell and acted chipper on "The Daily Show" Monday night, describing her snaggletoothed Nanny McPhee character as an anarchic anti-Mary Poppins because she teaches kids there are many ways to be a normal child. (Thompson accused Poppins of narcissism.) She also played along with Jon Stewart's characterization of the show's hilarious resident Brit, John Oliver -- who looks as if he should still be studying literature at Cambridge University -- as the epitome of fey English manhood. Thompson brought forth a funny London fog of jokes about pasty-faced British children being hidden in closets unless it's raining outside.

At the end, Stewart wondered out loud if anyone ever told her she was charming, then told her she embodied "glamor." Who could blame him for sounding surprised? Lately, Thompson has been a wonderful comedian in character roles. She was particularly terrific as Trelawney in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," whipping up a tangy comic pathos in mere seconds. (Few have looked more forlorn than Thompson's Trelawney under her bottom-of-the-Coke-bottle glasses.) But her only recent romantic role was opposite Dustin Hoffman in the wan "Last Chance Harvey," as (sigh) a woman who must learn to enjoy life and break away from a too-needy mother.

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As a performer, Thompson has the ability to make intelligence and wit sexy. She also might be able to convey the ardor of women who don't conduct their romantic lives according to conventional timetables, as Katharine Hepburn did in different ways in "The African Queen" and "Summertime." (She might even be able to harrow the depths that Hepburn did as Mary Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey into Night.") But who would write those roles for her today? And who would finance movies like these? It may be that Thompson undervalues her own gifts as an actor (she gives awfully cozy interviews to places like USA Today). But this move toward total comic whimsy feels like a forced retreat. Must we settle for the modest pleasures of her offbeat nanny?

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