Sunday, December 5, 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)

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