Poor Naomi Watts just can’t escape the big blue. Everywhere we see the Aussie actress these days, it seems she’s accompanied by a literal ocean, its waters deep and vast, and ripe for the application of metaphor. First, Watts fought against a tsunami in The Impossible, an act many would say paid off since it landed her an Oscar nod. Then, Watts cheated on bestie Nicole Kidman with Robin Wright, her Adore co-star with whom she did a son-as-sex-partner swap, and floated on an anchored dock just off the Australian coast. Now, Watts is gazing off into the ripply horizon again on this one-sheet for Diana, a once-baity biopic that casts the actress as the ill-fated “people’s princess.”
Bearing the tagline, “The only thing more incredible than the life she led was the secret she kept,” the poster, in all its open space, points to the missed opportunities of a life cut short, and calls to mind one of the worst lines in Titanic: “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets.” Presumably, this scene shows Watt’s Diana on the luxury yacht of Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar), where a few of the film’s key scenes reportedly take place. Where it positions Watts herself is where she’s unfortunately been for too long now: caught drifting in limbo between her considerable talent and the quality of work to which she’s attached.
I don’t really have any qualms with what Watts delivered in The Impossible; she gave her whole body over to a role with what surely looked like grueling demands, regardless of the level of stunt-double involvement. It’s the limited offering of actual dramatic opportunity with which I take issue. For all the body horror Watts is asked to portray in this fact-based fiasco, the movie never attempts to truly tap into her actorly gifts (and, no, one final, misguided crying scene doesn’t ease the irritation). As for Adore, both Watts and Wright are ludicrously shortchanged by a farce that presents its campy conceit with dire seriousness, leaving both actresses forced to emotively fill the gaps while looking like constipated goddesses.
And here comes Diana, which boasts a plum role for any serious actress with features similar to the subject, and which also poses a risk symbolized here by Watts dangling at the edge of a diving board (after all, even great actors can belly-flop in their attempts to play real people). Sadly, early reviews of the film (largely out of Diana’s native U.K.) are absolutely not good, with one critic, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, going so far as to call the film “car crash cinema,” a remark whose unsubtle reference to the princess’s manner of death suggests an all-stops-pulled adverse reaction indeed.
There was a time when this writer considered Watts the most exciting actress in the business. Naturally, it was just after Mulholland Drive, which has, many times over, proven Watts’s filmic equivalent of a first hit of heroin, forever to be chased (as Whoopi Goldberg says of the joy of sex in Sister Act, “I’ve heard”). But that excitement did take long a while to wane, and it lasted right on through to Watts’s devastating turn in Michael Haneke’s 2007 Funny Games remake. But then came The International, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and Dream House, which about catches us up to this current, lamentable dry spell (2010’s Fair Game is the only arguable high in the mix). For the cynical and pessimistic, the reasoning may be that Watts has merely gotten older, and the good stuff just isn’t coming her way in as great of frequency now. But that theory doesn’t exactly fly in this case, as Watts’s career has never been one bound to vanity, nor to the types of projects that would scoff at a grand actress who’s simply not 30 anymore.
The tough truth may be that Watts’s taste level has taken a blow, and that she’s just not choosing the right projects, looking plainly at role (Diana!) or director (Clint Eastwood!) instead of actually scouring, as she presumably did once, the content and possibilities of a truly interesting script. Come back to shore, Naomi. Leave those unforgiving waters to the fishes. Consider the lifesaver tossed.