Emily Watson’s career was born from chance. Or plain dumb luck, depending how you look at it. After Helena Bonham Carter dropped out of Breaking the Waves at the last minute, director Lars von Trier plucked Watson from obscurity and gave her a shot. Since that startling debut, Watson has become nothing short of a British force of cinematic nature.
Rarely raising her voice above speaking level, Watson is equipped with eyes that can do all the talking. Whether she’s charming, sinister, innocent or guilty, I have yet to see a character that Watson didn’t play to utter perfection. Her amount of notable roles extends far past the number I’m about to list, but here are the ones that have struck me the most.
Hilary and Jackie (1998)
Jacqueline du Pré
In playing real life famed cellist, Jacqueline du Pré, Watson proved that she was far more than I one hit wonder. She rode the acclaim of Breaking the Waves in one of the most respectable ways possible: by choosing her roles carefully, and not cashing in.
Jackie is a woman lost. She’s the kind of talent who doesn’t take her craft seriously, because she simply doesn’t care how flawless she is. Rather than perfecting her skill, she’d rather dumb down the talent of others. Her sister, Hilary, receives a majority of the abuse, constantly dealing with Jackie’s borderline manic-depressive personality. Whether Jackie is sitting bloodied and nude in a field, or demanding to sexually share Hilary’s husband, there’s nothing Watson does here that isn’t completely believable. The confidence and vulnerability in her work really is fascinating.
Gosford Park (2001)
If you’ve seen Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, then you know how many excellent actors fill out the plethora of big personalities depicted in the film. The movie is filled with so many set pieces and scene scenarios, to highlight just one in particular seems damn near impossible. But here goes.
My favorite moment of Gosford Park is a look that Emily Watson gives directly after mistakenly uttering a few words of dialogue. As the help of a sprawling English country home are serving dinner to the impossibly snooty guests, the hostess of the weekend, Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) begins playfully throwing verbal jabs at her husband, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) in front of everyone.
After Lady Sylvia has said too much, head maid, Elsie, cuts the Lady off in opposition before quickly catching herself. Everyone in the room stops. No one moves, no one speaks. This behavior, it would appear, is simply unheard of. And goddamn if Watson doesn’t nail her character’s petrified reaction.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
It’s very easy to see how and why Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) falls so hard so quickly for Lena Leonard. Everything she says, she says with earnest intent. There’s no pretense or hidden motivation, she’s a woman simply looking for love. And watching their love (their whimsical, perfect love) unfold on screen represents some of the most magical moments Paul Thomas Anderson has ever out on film.
There are so many breathtaking scenes to highlight here. That perfect first kiss, that bizarrely tender pillow talk – everything Watson does proves to be the absolute appropriate ying to Sandler’s thankfully reserved yang. But really, my favorite moment of the film can be summed up by four of Lena’s own joyful words.
“So here we go.”
Separate Lies (2005)
The most telling thing about Julian Fellowes’ Separate Lies is the complete apathy the majority of its characters are equipped with. Anna Manning is the seemingly steadfast wife of successful London solicitor, James Manning (Tom Wilkinson). Soon into the film, one of their friends is killed in a hit and run, and local snob Bill Bule (Rupert Everett) quickly becomes the prime suspect.
Many things lead to another and before long, James learns that Anna and Bill are involved in a heated affair. The conversation between Wilkinson and Watson that reveals Anna’s infidelity is, quite simply, one of the best moments of their respective careers.
“Oh fuck Bill!” Wilkinson exclaims without care.
“That’s the thing, really,” Watson apathetically states. “I do fuck Bill. Or rather, he fucks me.”
Appropriate Adult (2011)
Until a few days ago, I had never heard of Appropriate Adult, the two-part British film that aired last year. But after trolling Wikipedia, I noticed that Watson’s work as Janet Leach had garnered a handful of awards, so I was motivated to check it out. And thank God I did, because Watson’s work as an unwavering yet impressionable appropriate adult proved to be some of her finest work I’ve seen. (Also from Wikipedia, I learned that an appropriate adult is a parent, guardian, social worker, or volunteer who is present if a young person or vulnerable adult is searched or questioned while in police custody.)
So, after Janet is randomly chosen to act as the appropriate adult for Fred West (played by Dominic West), she and the killer develop a unique rapport based on mutual respect, all while she battles an emotionally ill husband at home. For evidence of Watson’s incredible work here, witness the first scene Janet has with Fred. Fred sits with his lawyer while being interrogated by two officials, all while Janet monitors close by. Fred doesn’t even pretend to hide anything, he immediately admits to (accidently) strangling his daughter to death, chopping her legs off, and burying her in the back yard.
During this chilling monologue, director Julian Jarrold does a very wise thing and focuses much of the moment on Watson’s horrified face. Everything you need to know about this woman is executed in 30 seconds of silent screen time. It’s perfection.
The Best of the Best
Breaking the Waves (1996)
I typically make it a point to not mention the best role of an actor’s career in these posts, until we reach the role itself. But in Watson’s case, I simply had to begin this entry by briefly describing what has to be one of the boldest, most fearless film debuts of all time.
As mentioned earlier, Helena Bonham Carter’s aversion to Lars von Trier’s daring subject matter proved to be Emily Watson’s glory. Bess McNeill is a different kind of woman. Traumatized by her brother’s death, Bess’ emotional instability is best stated as a woman who’s “not all there.” When she asks God a question in church, she responds for him (in a deepened version of her own voice). When cruel children throw rocks at her for no damn reason, she views it as an act of the purposeful God she so diligently believes in. And when her new husband is paralyzed in an oilrig accident and requests that Bess sleep with other men for his own edification, Bess dutifully abides, seeing it God’s way.
Now, for those who haven’t seen Breaking the Waves, please accept that crude plot summary as just that: crude. This is a marvelous film (albeit a very audacious one), in which no words I write can do justice.
For those who have seen this film, you just… know. You know its power and angst, and the way it brilliantly flips hopelessness into hopefulness. And you also know that much of the film’s strength rests solely on the shoulders of one young actress. One very raw, very skilled, very perfect young actress.
Other Notable Roles
|In The Boxer|
The Boxer (1997)
Angela’s Ashes (1999)
Red Dragon (2002)
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)
The Proposition (2005)
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Cold Souls (2009)
War Horse (2011)
Anna Karenina (2012)
Michael Clarke Duncan
Philip Baker Hall
Philip Seymour Hoffman
the Cast of Lincoln
William H. Macy
John C. Reilly