It’s not that we haven’t seen Emily Watson on screen recently — it just feels a long time since any film really made us look at her. Somehow knowing and guileless and haunted at once, her piercing, pale-eyed gaze made an immediate mark in film history with her debut in “Breaking the Waves” a quarter-century ago, but it’s been an underused natural resource of late: TV has been more generous, but the movies have confined her to stock mom-and-wife supporting roles for years. She’s a mom and wife again in “God’s Creatures,” an unexpected pivot of a sophomore feature from American duo Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer. The difference is a film with an acute interest in sidelined mothers, wives and women in general, and the result is Watson’s meatiest, most compelling showcase in an age.
A solemn community tragedy set in an unnamed, unloved Irish fishing village, “God’s Creatures” is rooted — perhaps a little self-consciously at times — in the isle’s long tradition of plainspoken poetry that gives an elevated lilt to everyday sadness. It’s a language that serves the film’s actors well: Alongside Watson, Paul Mescal and Aisling Franciosi do fine, sharply felt work here, feasting on the idiomatic richness of first-time feature writer Shane Crowley’s original screenplay, with its passages of intensified speech amid pools of charged silence.
That faintly theatrical quality is a less obvious match for the gifts of Davis and Holmer, who dazzled with the tactile sensuality and subjective reverie of their 2015 debut “The Fits,” a brief, intoxicating study of a Black preteen girl finding her place in a Cincinnati recreation center. (The filmmakers split directing and editing credits there, sharing one for writing; here they’re billed as joint helmers.) Far from their home turf, they imbue “God’s Creatures” with a stately grace while tamping down their more experimental impulses, respectful to a fault of the words and world they’ve adopted. The film, moving and emotionally intelligent, could use a touch more of their heady strangeness.
Any wildness, however, has long since left the life of Aileen O’Hara (Watson), a middle-aged team leader at the fish processing facility that gives her gray home village its faint economic pulse. Protecting her predominantly female staff with a near-maternal sense of duty, she’s good at a job that evidently brings her little joy, and home life isn’t much of a relief. She shares a boxy, dimly lit house with her chilly husband Con (Declan Conlon) and catatonic brother-in-law Paddy (Lalor Roddy), while relations with her adult daughter Erin (Toni O’Rourke), herself a new mom, somehow aren’t as warm as you might expect. Of Aileen’s two children, she’s the one who stayed close to home; it also becomes clear she was never the favorite.
That would be prodigal son Brian (Mescal), who dropped out of the family for several years to work in Australia, remaining more or less incommunicado throughout his absence. As rudely as he disappeared on them, he returns home one afternoon without warning or explanation, announcing his intention to revive Paddy’s defunct oyster farm. Aileen is sufficiently thrilled to have her golden boy back that she avoids asking too many probing questions. Con and Erin are less openly welcoming, while others in the small, whispering community regard him askance — notably Aileen’s melancholic colleague Sarah (Franciosi), a former girlfriend of Brian’s, who keeps her distance where he’d rather resume relations.
When a sexual assault charge is brought against Brian, these flinty tensions and question marks gain color and context, while further conflicts spiral from the situation when Aileen, in a fit of blind loyalty to her son, provides a false alibi for him. Visited upon multiple characters, the mounting misfortune that ensues stems from the timely subject of society’s patriarchal tendency to disbelieve women, or to grant certain female archetypes more credibility than others.
“God’s Creatures” largely avoids didactic moralizing in favor of a deeper, more sorrowful examination of interior guilt, accountability and compromised solidarity — though its touch in this regard could be lighter. Crowley’s script can lean heavily on literary monologuing, with ambiguous feelings not just suggested but comprehensively articulated. The film goes hard, too, on baleful foreshadowing, both verbal and symbolic: Even before disaster strikes, the community is palpably menaced by growling slate-blue skies and restless, hungry waters, captured by DP Chayse Irvin (“BlacKkKlansman,” Beyonce’s “Lemonade”) in awed, ominous vistas free of standard Emerald Isle pictorialism. A marvelous score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, heavy on flutes that channel cold coastal winds, likewise stresses earthy threat over Celtic whimsy.
Still, the film’s formal flourishes are modest, centering the actors ahead of all else. Mescal is cleverly cast in the wake of his breakout turn in TV’s “Normal People,” his easy laddish appeal potentially steering some viewers into the same impulsive defensiveness that consumes his mother. As in her headlining role in Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale,” Franciosi wields an inhabited thousand-yard gaze that connotes a brutalized body and psyche alike — inching towards healing in one sustained gift of a profile shot. But it’s Watson who stays with you, as Aileen is once again left behind by the lives around her, sabotaged by her own misplaced nurturing instincts: Some of the film’s best scenes simply focus quietly on her observing others, searching them for some secret she’s missed along the way. Watson is a great watcher as an actor: It’s been too long since a film watched her this well in turn.