Emily Watson on Ireland-set assault drama God’s Creatures: “We’re all complicit because the status quo is for all of us”

Directors Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis join Emily Watson to dive into the moral quandaries posed by their film God’s Creatures, a story of alleged assault in a close-knit fishing community, co-starring Paul Mescal.

30 March 2023

By Josh Slater-Williams

God’s Creatures (2022) © A24

Set in a County Kerry fishing village, God’s Creatures is American director Anna Rose Holmer’s long-awaited follow-up to breakthrough feature The Fits (2015), with that film’s editor, Saela Davis, now joining her as co-director. “Two really cool, super smart young women from New York, who were very quiet but very powerful,” is how the film’s star, Emily Watson, describes the pair. “They ran a set in a way that they had this Irish crew eating out of their hand, dancing on the head of a pin.”

Watson plays initially somewhat doting mother Aileen, coming to terms with doubts and suspicion after providing an alibi for her son, Brian (Paul Mescal), when the young man – long absent from the community and recently returned from an extended stay in Australia – faces an accusation made to police by Aileen’s fellow factory worker, Sarah (Aisling Franciosi).

The film is written by Shane Crowley, from a story conceived with producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, whose own family are from a fishermen background. “The first point of connection for us was the lyricism and poetry of Shane’s screenplay,” says Holmer. “When we read it, we felt transported to the west coast of Ireland. And in particular, Aileen was someone we felt we hadn’t quite seen on screen before. Her interiority was something we were haunted by. We then developed a screenplay with Shane and Fodhla for another two and a half years. We went multiple times almost entirely to Kerry, which is where the film’s set, although we shot in Donegal for Kerry. We spent a lot of time learning those crafts, watching the tide come in and feeling the elements.”

Co-directors Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis with cinematographer Chayse Irvin behind the scenes on God’s Creatures (2022)

In telling this story of a close-knit community’s reaction to allegations of assault, Davis says they deliberately avoided any characteristics reminiscent of a procedural: “We weren’t going to lay down evidence for the audience to decide. It’s not about Aileen trying to understand what the truth is. It’s about the truth for her and what that looks like psychologically.”

“Aileen is somebody in conflict with her interior moral compass,” Holmer expands. “She’s in direct conflict with the patterns and traditions she’s been raised to believe are good. You may not find yourself in this direct situation, but I think we’ve all found ourselves in one where your body’s telling you something’s wrong, but the world around you doesn’t quite fit into that gut feeling you’re having.”

“We were drawn to the way in which she asks those questions,” Davis adds. “That it’s not coming from the external, that it’s very much this internal journey for her and that she has to ask herself the tough questions. She has to open her eyes, observe the world around her and decide which traditions are worth holding onto and which are worth breaking.”

“The moral cogs crunching through is wonderful material to work with,” says Watson of her most substantial film role in some time. “The role of the church in this is very interesting because this is a religious community. They go to mass; they go to the blessings of the boats. They pay lip service, at least, to all the framework of Catholic morality, and yet they close ranks around a rapist. And there’s the painful irony of that for this young woman [Sarah] in a community where everybody just turns their backs, when they’ve all known each other since birth. What’s wrong with his picture?”

God’s Creatures provides an intriguing case study for exploring sexual assault in a modern film. The alleged act of violence isn’t shown on screen, and the narrative grapples with how it’s not always only the perpetrator at fault in letting the victim of this violence down; it can also often be people trying not to disrupt their community or family’s status quo. “We’re all complicit because the status quo is for all of us,” Watson says of the inclination of some to leap to a protective instinct for relatives, friends or colleagues, making reference to recent high-profile cases concerning the Metropolitan Police. “This examines, in a really interesting way, how that happens.”

The role of Aileen is hardly dialogue-free, but a considerable amount of tension comes from the directors’ favouring of still moments, close-ups and silent stretches. “Early on,” says Davis, “we think about how the body is reflecting what the character’s going through. When we were looking at Emily, as reference we were watching Breaking the Waves [1996], and her performance in that is a lot about the silences and what she’s thinking.”

“I love when a director recognises that you can just tell a story with your face,” comments Watson. “It’s like doing a miniature painting. I love that kind of detail work because it means you can be very patient and profound.”

God’s Creatures (2022)
© A24

There’s a heavy focus on faces to tell a story, but also on even the tiniest shifts in body language as means of communicating feeling and logic. “Both of us have worked in fiction and non-fiction filmmaking,” says Holmer, “and one gift of working in non-fiction filmmaking is witnessing bodies navigate the world in real time. For us, a lot of that in our shared body of work was dance. Watching dancers move and how to tell a story through the body is something that’s a point of connection and fascination. Having the privilege of getting to be able to film dance for so long inspired me, personally, to seek a type of storytelling that’s a little bit in the subconscious; a little bit in the dance element. It’s about the tension and release of the body, which has been a real gift to think about.”

Holmer describes the making of God’s Creatures “as the making of a ghost story”, commenting on the experimental sound design that Watson says was a surprise to her on watching the final edit. One of the first sounds viewers hear in the film appears to be that of someone drowning.

“It’s leaning into horror stylisation without it reading from the front as a horror film,” Holmer says. “We incorporated the conceptual language of horror through sound design and score. That has a lot to do with silence and tension and what are the inflection points; utilising camera and sound, sometimes completely against each other, to build this discomfort from the opening frame. It’s this sense of dread that you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s of this place, it’s of these people.”

God’s Creatures is in cinemas, including at BFI Southbank, from 31 March 2023.

There’s a special screening of God’s Creatures with a Q&A with actors Emily Watson, Aisling Franciosi and Toni O’Rourke on 31 March.

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