5. Emily Watson - Bess, Breaking The Waves (1996)
It nearly didn’t happen. Lars von Trier cast Helena Bonham Carter as Bess: a childlike woman, brought up in a remote, religious community on the west coast of Scotland.
Bess discovers the joy of sex with her husband (Stellan Skarsgård), but when he is paralysed in an accident he urges her to sleep with other men--and after talking to god, she does.
Bonham Carter got cold feet and so Von Trier replaced her with a complete unknown: Emily Watson. She is a revelation in this strange and intensely demanding role--as miraculous as she needs to be if the film is to work.
Beatific in the early scenes, especially in the giddy bliss of her marriage, weirdly compelling in her verbal back-and-forths with the almighty, wretchedly harrowing in her descent into degradation.
Von trier’s in-your-face camerawork helped of course, but watching at the time, knowing next to nothing about her, you had to wonder if Watson was really acting or perhaps she wasn’t quite right in the head?
“Emily Watson should never do another movie,” exulted Von Trier’s future Dogme cohort, Harmony Korine in 1997.
“If she stopped right here, she’d go down in history with Rowlands, Gish and Falconetti as the greatest actress of all time.”
Greatest moment: Bess speaks to God and He replies.
Also see: Lena Leonard (Punch-Drunk Love)