Naomi Watts Watch: The International

[See here for more of my posts about Naomi Watts.]

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?


5 thoughts on “Naomi Watts Watch: The International

  1. Even though most critics slammed this film, I really enjoyed it for what it was – an unabashed homage to paranoid thrillers from the 1970s. It’s hard not to see elements from THE PARALLAX VIEW and others in this film. I do agree with you that Watts doesn’t get much to do but she is still solidly reliable in the role and I think she has pretty decent chemistry with Owen.

    • It’s not a bad film, and the Guggenheim shoot-out is amazing enough to make it memorable – I just wish some more of the film had been similarly witty and a little bit more unhinged. They seemed determined to make a film about banking, when really you can make a paranoid thriller about corrupt arms dealers and let the audiences infer a comparison with contemporary banking crises. I always like watching Naomi Watts, but here she was given some impossible dialogue. I know they shot a scene where she and Owen kiss – I think it was good to remove this: a romance plot between them (torn between love and duty! etc.) would have been pretty tacky. But a bit more playing off each other wouldn’t have gone amiss. He’s a real maverick character, and she’s made very blank. Even making her more stuffy and uptight would have a cliche, but might have livened up the relationship. I can see what they wanted to do – the investigation was the main driver, and they didn’t want extraneous drama or character antagonisms to dilute that. I respect that decision, but still found myself missing the formulae.

  2. My vote would be for Strange Planet, as thats the film I have not seen yet, so I’d be interested to hear more about it!

    Interesting that you bring up Kidman in your piece, as I often bracket this film together with The Interpreter in my mind, maybe for no greater reason than they are both semi-political thrillers dealing with conspiracies and share “The In…” titles! Nicole Kidman in that film has a similar role in that apart from overhearing the conversation at the beginning all she really is allowed to do is to look pretty and endangered, along with being portrayed as an obvious intellectual smarty-pants in a rareified world yet rather unworldly compared to the (albeit flawed) men with the ‘street smarts’ who surround her. She also drops out almost entirely for the end, returning for the love interest coda.

    • Thanks, Colin – they’re definitely very similar political thrillers. I did watch Strange Planet, but it’s really not very interesting. If I can get round to it, I’ll post something, but I might just as easily get sidetracked by a better, or at least stranger film.

  3. Pingback: Naomi Watts Watch: The Impossible | Spectacular Attractions

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