Thursday, December 13, 2012

In Character: Emily Watson

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.

Five Essential Roles
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)
Lena Leonard
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)
Anna Manning
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)
Janet Leach
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)
Bess McNeill
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)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Don Cheadle
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
Michael Clarke Duncan
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
Woody Harrelson
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
the Cast of Lincoln
William H. Macy
Christopher McDonald
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Stanley Tucci
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright
Steve Zahn


  1. I love her. Breaking the Waves just blew my mind. It is one of my favourite performances ever. Also, loved her in Gosford Park and Punch Drunk Love.

    Great post :)

    1. Thanks! Sometimes, there's really no contesting an actor's best performance. Breaking the Waves is just... wow. So so very good.

  2. Another great post man. I've seen most of her notable performances overall, but I still need to see Hilary and Jackie, Separate Lies, and Appropriate Adult. Obviously I agree with your #1 choice, as it cracked my top 5 female performances list. That's such a brave performance, and the film is all the better for it.

    I've heard good things about her performance in Oranges and Sunshine. Thoughts?

    1. Thanks dude! Of the ones you mentioned, Watson shines brightest in Hilary and Jackie.

      Shit man, I haven't even seen Oranges and Sunshine... now I must watch it ASAP!

  3. Replies
    1. All because of you! Thanks for the reco.

    2. No problem. By the way I was able to find you on FB not sure whether you got the request or not.

    3. Okay cool, was wondering if that was you. Just accepted!

    4. Thanks. This post gave me an idea for a list. How about "greatest film acting debuts?"

    5. Ha. Would you believe me if I told you I was working on that just this moment? Gonna love doing that list.

    6. :D Do you think you could add Elizabeth Olsen for a more recent choice?

    7. Oh hell yeah, she was perfect in MMMM.

  4. Man, I really need to re-watch Gosford Park. I do not remember Watson at all (among other actors).

    Anyway, I loved her in Punch-Drunk Love. I also really liked her in Match Point.

    I really want to see Breaking the Waves, but Netflix is basically all, "Oh, you have to wait forever before you can get a copy." (Jerks.)

    1. I hadn't watched Gosford Park in years before last week. Really enjoyed it.

      She's perfect in Punch-Drunk, just perfect. (Hey, did you mean Emily Mortimer in Match Point? Love her there.)

      Breaking the Waves is stunning. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

    2. Oh yeah, sorry. I sometimes get actors mixed up. (But it happens rarely fortunately.)

    3. Don't we all. Two great, engaging, British Emilys. Fair enough!

  5. I'm hoping for a major Criterion release for Breaking the Waves. It's the one film (other than Badlands) that I hope gets a Criterion release. I even hope my essay on the film would provide something for them.

    1. Dude, seriously, if there are two Criterions that NEED to be released, it is those two. They'd look gorgeous under Criterion's eye.

    2. Oh... this just in... Badlands will be coming to Criterion in March.

    3. Oh shit, that is epic. I seriously can't wait for that. Now... bring on Waves.

  6. Wait, is Breaking the Waves the film where Helena dropped out because the storyline had her being chopped up in pieces? Or is that just a tall tale in Hollywood? :)

    Anyway, Watson's eyes are absolutely stunning. And by first glance, one wants to relegate her as the naive, not-at-all-there girl, but she's a powerhouse and a strong performer and woman. Basically, I have to see more of her films.

    1. Ha, if that's the case, I've certainly never heard that. I've only heard that she dropped out because the role required too much nudity. But I kinda like yours better. Ha.

      A powerhouse indeed. So glad to hear you're a fan. You can never watch too many Watson films.

  7. Hooray! Emily Watson! I'm glad you chose Breaking the Waves and Hilary & Jackie. Those would be my two picks. Gorgeous post!

    1. Thanks! She is oh so flawless in both of those films. I had never seen Hilary and Jackie before this post. And wow. I was stunned.

    2. I'm glad you watched that film -- it's one of my favorites.

    3. Oh really? Good stuff. Very very powerful film.

  8. I really love Emily Watson, even though I'm not a fan of Breaking the Waves, she was incredible in it. She always brings such an honest and sensitive performances, always appearing so understanding and compassionate towards her heroines. Love her work in Red Dragon, her and Fiennes were so amazing in this, bringing out the human side in his messed up character, which was near impossible to do.

    1. I was really close to including her Red Dragon work here, because I thought she took very mediocre material and made it shine. She's simply great in that role.

      Funny you mention your distaste for Breaking the Waves... I was just reading Two Dollar Cinema's review for Antichrist and laughed my ass off at your comment. So, question: is there a von Trier flick you like (or love)? Just curious!

    2. Oh yeah, the script for RD was far from great, but the cast was so brilliant they really did wonders with it.

      I really liked Melancholia - I thought it showed how brilliant Von Trier's film can be if he just kills of his natural instincts to include pointless violence and adorable moments like woman banging her head against the toilet seat.

    3. Ha, you're too funny. I completely get where you're coming from. I loved Melancholia.

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    1. Ha, that's funny... you're the second person to get Watson confused with Emily Mortimer. Both great actresses, but Mortimer is the gal from The Newsroom.

  10. Alex, Emily Watson is so great. I love her parts in Hillary and Jackie, The Boxer, Punch-Drunk Love, and so much more. The Proposition is also another good one. I actually haven't seen Breaking the Waves, but I've heard she's amazing in it. Great choice!

    1. Thanks Dan! All great roles you mentioned there. Obviously, I really love her work in Waves, highly recommend it. Thanks so much for reading/commenting!

  11. Replies
    1. Hell yeah man. Glad you're a fan.

    2. Has Watson ever played a villain,or at least someone really unlikable?

      I haven't seen a lot of her work...but i feel like she has a look that would be impossible not to sympathize with

    3. She's pretty much a vindictive, manipulative, raging bitch in Hilary and Jackie. But her depressive episodes are offset by many manic ones as well. That's the closest I've seen to her breaking bad.

  12. Emily Watson can be remembered in BREAKING THE WAVES alone! That is one of the craziest and boldest female performance I've ever seen.Can't imagine the Helena Bonham Carter version!

    1. Yes sir, couldn't agree more with you! She is so so good in Breaking the Waves. Just remarkable. Picturing the Carter version is definitely tricky.

  13. Excellent tribute to a great actress, I recently saw her in The Proposition and thought she was amazing in it.

    1. Thanks man! She's so good in that movie. What a devastating arc she has.

  14. Quite an amazing insight to an exceptionally gifted actress. She gave one of the most stunning debut performances ever put on screen in Breaking The Waves and while I have absolutely NO complaints about Frances McDormand winning Best Actress for Fargo and her win is one of the best in its category, if it were up to me, I would've given BA to Watson. Such fearless work she gives.

    1. Thanks man. Ahh, 1996, damn tough year. I can't fault McDormand for winning either, but yeah, my vote would've gone to Watson as well. As strong a debut performance as I've ever seen.

  15. I think she is a great actor and has one of those faces that not only shows a multitude of emotions, but is a pleasure to behold. Bravo.

    1. Thanks so much! She's one of the all time greats.