Sunday, December 05, 2010

Take Three: Emily Watson

Craig here with Take Three. Today: Emily Watson

Take One: Upstairs 0 - Downstairs 1

The Academy often doubles up with their supporting ladies – i.e. Weaver and Cusack for Working Girl, Farmiga and Kendrick for Up in the Air, and so on. It was true also for 2001’s Gosford Park's Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith. I always thought a third should’ve been added. Watson delivered five-star service and, for me, the film’s best performance by a country (house) mile. She played Elsie, the knowing, spirited maid that doomed homeowner Sir William (Michael Gambon) liked to see doing plenty of overtime.

Among the film's interviewing mini-plots, Elsie’s narrative was an intriguing red herring, a side dish. But then Gosford Park wasn’t really about the murder as much as it was about class. Watson had plenty.

Watson in Gosford Park

Altman’s film was packed wall-to-wall with high-level thesping and hidden somewhere in the pack was Watson effortlessly showing everybody up. Mirren was great, Smith very good, but Watson's was the most likeable, instinctive and vibrant turn. In Gosford Park Watson proves adept at making familiar type seem fresh and altogether vital. She’s always believable on screen. Mirren’s emotional resolution was Gosford Park’s sad closer, but Watson sent the film off on a more optimistic note.

Take Two: Staring death in the face

We were all was vicariously looking out for Watson’s character Reba McClane in Red Dragon (2002). Given the circumstances, somebody needed to. Reba was the blind co-worker dubiously romanced by heavily-tattooed serial killer Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes). Falling for the mentally-suspect mother’s boy was a mistake, sure, but appearances can be deceptive and Reba didn’t have the foresight. Their shared outsiderdom brought them together  but with one major difference: he was madder than a box of frogs, she wasn’t; he went around watching other people’s home videos, gluing folk to wheelchairs then setting them on fire and eating paintings, she didn’t.

Watson in Red Dragon

Watson was spot on in the role offering no concession to cliché, no unnecessary dwelling on the “disability” aspect, no life-affirming monologues. Instead she provides  solid, amiable character acting. Her final moments, wondering aloud to Edward Norton whether she “drew a freak”, are brief but minutely heartbreaking. Watson turned a shopworn character, twice mislabelled a victim, into a full-bodied person, coloring her in with nuanced detail. Reba wasn’t just a pitiable blind girl. She was refreshingly knowing, slightly cynical and  believably vulnerable in ways we don’t normally see.

Take Three: Hard times, clean hands

Grandiose, revisionist westerns made with lyrical verve, riper than thou character names and terse dialogue aren’t ten a penny these days, so it's best to relish them when they roll around. Ace Aussie oddity The Proposition (2005) was one of my films of 2006; Watson made my best actress list. Martha Stanley, the homely, nervy wife to Ray Winstone’s Captain was quietly electrifying. Here was a woman ill-adjusted to frontier lief, stuck in the (out)back of beyond in a godforsaken 1800s town built on violence. This delicate English flower wilted in the heat of the Australian desert. Emily's Martha gradually hardens to all that death and dust, but never accepts it. She’s one of writer Nick Cave’s best creations: like a doomed heroine in one of his murder ballads, but fleshed out and allowed to cautiously flourish.

Watson in The Proposition

Even though Martha was on the periphery of all the manly action, Hillcoat’s camera is still attentive to her. Through Watson’s beautifully underplayed performance we are granted access to her inner thoughts. When she overhears of her husband’s betrayal (concerning the flogging of a man believed to have raped and murdered her only friend), we not only witness her utter disbelief in cutaway, but the scene itself ends on her exhausted yet defiant stride out of her isolated house. Her blue-brown dress is at elegant odds to the expansive, harsh desert terrain she heads towards.

Watson in the bath

Watson's performance is a set of emotive actions finely woven together. Watch the way she inspects her water-withered hands in the bath as she talks of her grief, the way her deathly dream virtually obliterates her own waking perception of events, how her brittle defiance turns to resigned revulsion during the flogging scene and, in the brutal climax, her frozen terror. The reality of how hard a slog life was for Martha is etched all over Emily's face.

Three more key films for the taking:  Breaking the Waves (1995), Hilary & Jackie (1998), Punchdrunk Love (2002)


Anonymous said...

I lover her. Such agreat face for films. I would point her acting in Synecdoche NY too.



Remy -- i always forget that she's in that (my focus totally went to Samanth Morton & Michelle Williams)

Craig -- interesting that you think she's best in GOSFORD PARK. That's the great appeal of that movie, for those who love acting at least, that everyone seems to have a different favorite.

when it first came out i was all up in the Mirren/Smith hoopla but now I kind of think of Kristin Scott Thomas the most when I'm not thinking of Helen Mirren.

Gustavo said...

I wish she had gotten the Oscar for HILARY & JACKIE.

Hopefully, her part in WAR HORSE will allow her to shine a little.

Unknown said...

What a great actress and a fascinating face indeed.

Mine and many other people's 1996 Best Actress. It would be unfair of me to downgrade Frances McDormand's ICONIC turn in Fargo, her perfect speech and all, but no matter how great that was, she had nothing on Watson's work in Breaking the Waves.

I do hope Oranges & Sunshine is good and if it is, I hope she gets recognized again.

In Gosford Park everyone was so different and so good at the same time.

Anonymous said...

She really has a small part in Synecdoche,NY, but she nails that woman who is there replacing the love of PSH's character life and she doesn't care, like she's in terms with her role there, she doesn't need to fight against that, she accepts who she represents with great control and quietness. but, actually, I should rewatch that movie...


Kevin D. said...

I always preferred Scott-Thomas in "Gosford Park" myself. Ice queen at its best.

Bia said...

So curious to see Breaking The Waves after that discussion with Helena for the Hollywood Reporter Actress Roundtable.

adri said...

You pick such great actors for this series. I'm always so delighted when I see your latest choice.

Watson and Clive Owen were my favorites in "Gosford Park". Watson always seems to get right to the heart of a character. I was looking forward to seeing her in "Within the Whirlwind" last year, but I guess it went straight to DVD.

cal roth said...

I think the we have less than 10 Best Actress nominated performances that could have beaten Watson's in 1996 fairly, and none of them belong to Frances McDormand, no matter how great she is. Maybe less than 5 performances? Of course we're far from from having seen the full list, but I can't doubt what I've seen in Watson in Breaking the Waves. That was not human.

Scott said...

So good in Gosford Park (funnily enough I'd rate your favorite and Nathaniel's favorite, KST, as my two favorite actresses in the film), so good in the three films you mention at the end, so good in that little part in Synecdoche - she has remarkable range.

Broooooke said...

Thank you for this, Emily Watson has always been a quiet love of mine, and her performance in Breaking the Waves rates as my faveourite of all-time. Yes All-Time. She blew me away. But I am embarrassed to say I havent seen these movies (except Red Dragon). They are next on my list.

And yes, she was probably my fave part of Synecdoche NY, even in a movie of brilliant performances, because it was something I hadn't really seen from her before.

par3182 said...

favourite gosford park performances -

1. emily watson
2. kelly macdonald
3. kristin scott thomas
4. maggie smith
5. claudie blakley
6. helen mirren

wait...there were men in it?

Paolo said...

Team Kelly McDonald!

Also a) My first Watson is this movie about Ireland. CanNOT remember the title.

b) Just saw Breaking the Waves. Good GOD how does she manage to control her facial/eye movement in those close-ups. And this is also her film debut.

John said...

You are thinking of Angela's Ashes, one of my all time faves.

Marshall1 said...

To me, her greatest performance will always be Breaking the Waves. Just breaks my heart seeing her in the movie. Isn't she supposed to have a movie come out last year? A prisoner in the Russian prison camp? She looks fantastic in the trailer...but it never came out:(
I hope she continues to get great roles, but I guess it would never happen:(
Also, have a soft spot for Hilary and Jackie because I'm a musician as well....