- Film & TV
- 24 Mar 23
The English star on the hotly anticipated drama God’s Creatures, exploring important social issues onscreen, working with Paul Mescal and more.
With a career spanning over three decades, Emily Watson has captivated audiences with her talent, versatility, and dedication to her craft. Since her debut in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking The Waves, which earned her an Oscar nomination, Watson’s richly complex performances have earned her numerous accolades.
She admits she has often been drawn to roles that explore sex and subversion, feeling the importance of showing women who are multi-dimensional. In her new film God’s Creatures, directed by Saela Davisand Anna Rose Holmer, Watson dives into another dark, multifaceted role.
She plays Aileen, a mother living in a small Irish fishing village. When her son Brian (Paul Mescal) suddenly returns from a seven-year stint in Australia, Aileen is overjoyed to have her charismatic prodigal son back. But when her young co-worker Sarah (Aisling Franciosi) accuses Brian of raping her, Aileen instinctively lies to protect him.
Subsequently, she must wrestle not only with her own conscience, but with the idealised image she has of her son, and the darker reality that becomes impossible to ignore.
Sitting in the Merrion Hotel in a flowery blouse and blazer, Watson is warm and softly spoken, enthusing about the film’s premiere at the Dublin International Film Festival, and the return of public screenings after Covid.
“It really was such a thrill to open this film at this festival here with this audience,” she says. “There were a lot of young people who felt really engaged with the subject matter in a way that feels very present. And there’s something about Irish storytelling, both creating it and receiving it, that makes everyone kind of sit up and say ‘Let’s get in the deep, let’s smash things up a bit.’”
In God’s Creatures, Watson’s character lives among a tight-knit community, whose lives are centred on the fishing industry that employs them, and the church rituals that bring them together. Living with a taciturn husband and a strong-willed daughter, Aileen seems to be going through the motions – until her son arrives home.
Through the incredible performances of the cast and a screenplay that plays with the unspoken and unaddressed, the audience infers that Aileen’s family has experienced violence and estrangement, with tensions looming between father and son. But Aileen’s overwhelming love for her son is also immediately apparent, and her fear of losing him again defines her actions – even the inexcusable.
Watson was immediately drawn to this original portrayal of motherhood and a love so strong it becomes destructive.
“Sometimes when looking at roles for women my age or mothers, the writing is one-dimensional,” she considers. “But this is about a mother and it's so layered. When I first read it, it read to me like a Greek tragedy, a tragedy about the poison that comes from loving somebody too much; loving one child more than the others.
“It’s almost like force-feeding one child your love, making them like a plant that grows too quickly, and it immediately disrupts and damages the way they interact with everyone else, with the world. Even when you’re pre-verbal, your view of yourself is informed by how other people treat you. What if you’re the apple of their eye ad everyone else is secondary to you, including your father? That’s a dangerous precedent.
“So we see how this has happened to Aileen and Brian, and how it’s affected them. This has already obviously caused some violence in the family and he’s left – but then comes back. And all those old seeds of issues are already there. But she’s like an animal, she just wants him to be there, and to be hers, and to be okay. And the question is will she acknowledge what she has created.”
There’s a scene early on where Mescal’s character, Brian, offers to take his mother down to the local pub where live music is playing. When Watson’s character appears, the woman we have seen in dowdy work clothes is dressed up, her hair done, earrings sparkling. It feels almost romantic, her desire to show her son the best version of herself.
Later, this idea of the maternal bond resembling a toxic romantic relationship is tested to its limits; when Brian is accused of sexual assault, Aileen asks him what happened. Immediately, he becomes defensive, threatening to go back to Australia, and Watson’s face portrays a mix of emotions: fear of what her son may have done, but also the greater fear of losing him should she push too hard.
It reads like an abusive relationship, where any conversation about accountability is met with threats to leave, and shows that Brian knows how to wield and weaponise power in this relationship.
“Totally,” nods Watson, “and when I first read the script, there were scenes that kind of leant into that idea even more - not that anything happened between them, but there's still almost, a sense of, like, a sort of unacknowledged sexual attraction, just an intense closeness where it feels a little bit off. But you can tell that something is off in their relationship from the moment he walks in, reappearing after seven years with a simple, ‘Hi Mom.’
“But when he comes back, there is nothing she wouldn't do to them to keep him, because she's come alive again. And she feels validated, and feels herself in a way that she never has. So she feels this almost animal instinct of protecting him, and protecting the life that she wants.”
Why Brian went to Australia and why he has returned is never addressed by the characters in the film, and his return is met with a tension-filled silence from his father. This silence, the unspoken, hangs over the film, and when Brian is accused of sexual assault, the omerta spreads to the community. Only his sister Erin (Toni O’Rourke) tries to address the situation within her family. Outraged by her brother’s behaviour, she is determined not to sweep it under the rug.
“It’s such a generational divide,” agrees Watson, speaking of both Erin’s character and the audiences who have seen the film. “Everybody in that generation is going ‘What the actual fuck? What are we saying here?’ The silence is vital, in so many ways. Aileen and Brian would never have had a conversation about consent. They live in a church-going Catholic community that closes ranks around a rapist. It’s the layers of silence, and who breaks it.”
Ireland’s history of abuse within the Catholic Church, and oppressive silence around sex, certainly adds resonance to God’s Creatures. We see how the community protects Brian and ostracises Sarah, with omerta trumping the desire to protect women, or simply acknowledge the violence inflicted on them.
“This is something that has really come to the fore in Ireland in the last few years,” says Watson. “You get a sense of the stories coming out about abuse in the Church, and the young mothers and children being separated and all of those kinds of stories. But now, there’s a sense of saying, ‘The buck stops here, we’re going to lift up the rug and look.’ Because if you don’t, it goes on to another generation.
“In a way, that’s what has been quite exciting about all those things that are changing, and being examined in a fresh way. It also feels quite creative. Creative as in saying, ‘No, we’re not telling the same old story.’”
Movements like #MeToo as well as Ireland’s referenda on marriage equality and abortion have all formed part of this national re-creation story, but Watson also appreciates how on broader, cultural levels, the stories we see onscreen are also changing.
“My daughter is obsessed with the Bechdel Test,” she says, referring to queer cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s famous test for measuring basic levels of female representation in media. The test asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. “It’s excruciating how few films pass it. Even looking back on films that my children grew up watching, you notice it.
“I don’t want to pick on this actress or single her out, because it’s not her fault, but I remember showing my kids Zorro with Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta Jones. They went, ‘Is that actress okay, can she speak?!’ There were so many movies where you think to yourself, ‘Oh this is great, I’ll show them’ – and after five minutes you go, ‘Oh, no, that's just excruciating.’ But those stories are changing.”
The way we address sexual violence onscreen is also transforming. While it is still all too common for rape and sexual violence against women to be used onscreen for shock, titillation, or simply to propel the action of the male characters, films and TV are beginning to tackle the realities and aftermath of sexual assault for women. For example, shows like Unbelievable or Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, and films like Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, show the impact and aftermath of sexual violence.
But what makes God’s Creatures so unique and important is examining the responses of people close to the perpetrator. It shows how their upbringing, community norms, cognitive dissonance and internalised misogyny cause them to close ranks. Focusing on the family response feels important, highlighting that society still doesn’t have a roadmap for how to address sexual violence.
The justice system still fails the vast majority of victims; the trend of online public shaming is reserved for perpetrators with public profiles, and can backfire on victims as their stories are pulled part online by strangers; and restorative justice practices are not widely available or understood. The vast majority of conversations about sexual violence remain restricted to friends and family of both the victims and perpetrators - but we haven’t taught people how to have those conversations, or given guidance on how to support victims and hold abusers accountable.
“It is an interesting question, thinking about how does a family cope with it, particularly in a very traditional set-up, in a small town where religion plays an important role,” says Watson. “But religion isn’t helpful. So where does the Church come in? Where is the Church's guidance on sexual violence? How does the idea of confession, or faith or subjection to authority, give absolution without accountability?”
To tackle these issues onscreen, Watson has to convey – but the film also hangs on Mescal’s remarkable performance, which has a darkness and a hardness we have not yet seen from the actor. Watson is effusive in her praise for Mescal, who, at the time of our interview, was preparing to attend the Oscars after receiving a nomination for his performance in Aftersun.
“I know he has now become a global superstar and all that, but he's also just a proper actor,” says Watson. “He's the real deal. He has really powerful instincts and incredible range – but he’s also just adorable! He’s so lovely and warm. For certain scenes of course, I needed to keep a bit of distance just to get into my own space and protect that, but then in scenes where we’re engaging and our characters are dancing – it was just dreamy to work with him, he's great fun.”
Watson is passionate about God’s Creatures and the conversations it will undoubtedly inspire.
“Where is the Church in this conversation about consent and violence?” she asks. “How do we talk about this in families? How does silence maintain the status quo? I hope people talk about it. But I don’t really know, I’m just an actress.”
It’s the only time I have ever seen Emily Watson be unconvincing.
God’s Creatures is in cinemas now.