It’s only a few years on from King Kong, and Naomi Watts is back up a tall building in New York, in this case the District Attorney’s office, and this time she is far more constrained by the limitations of the role offered to her. It’s difficult to see what might have inspired her to take this part, except that her scenes were shot just three months after giving birth to her second son (all her scenes were saved until last), and it must have seemed like an undemanding gig to ease herself back into the job; all of her scenes were shot late in the schedule to allow her a longer post-natal break. There’s not a lot for her to be doing, but that’s not necessarily the result of recent motherhood: it’s a neat summary of the differences between the treatment of actors and actresses in Hollywood.
While Clive Owen gets to do all the running and interrogating, the shooting and the agonising (including an astounding gun battle in New York’s Guggenheim museum, which director Tom Tykwer shot in a warehouse-reconstruction of the building’s famous orange-peel spiral), Naomi gets to speak authoritatively in fluent legalese. This is a departure from the nervy meekness of her speech patterns in some of her other roles, but it does sap her character from the opportunity to express a fully-rounded personality. Clive Owen gets to bear the weight of the film’s thematic heft – he is the one we get to see punishing himself and feeling tormented by difficult decisions and the entrenched power of the conspiracy he is uncovering. Watts is given no scenes of private pain (we see Owen dunking his own head into icy water, as if to shock it clear of its troubles) that might show her to be similarly invested in the attempt to expose corrupt banking practices and arms deals. He gets to strain at the limits of the law (“There’s nothing complex about cold-blooded murder!”), while she meticulously upholds it. He exhibits increasing dishevelment as the plot thickens and tension builds – she is always smartly turned out (I can’t help noticing that Watts now looks a lot like Nicole Kidman might look if she hadn’t had so much work done on her face). This is not a simple sartorial note – the film is built around his subjectivity, and his appearance matches the progress of the narrative while hers remains fixed and decorative, even incidental. It is his impetuousness and chaos that break the case open and penetrate the banks’ ruthless walls of pragmatism. Now, imagine a gender-flipped scenario in which your lead actor is a new father. Do you postpone all his scenes to the end of shooting, redesign his character, or do you just postpone the entire film until he’s ready, or get a different lead actor? There are certainly no charity points for giving your action hero time off for paternalism. The solution would never be to keep the lead actor indoors away from the action: by the end of The International, Watts is effectively told to go home to her family and spare her delicate sensibilities the ugly facts of what it takes to wrap up the case.
For the next of these Naomi Watts Watch posts, I’ll tackle something juicier. Which of the following would you like: Strange Planet, King Kong, Mulholland Drive, The Painted Veil?