Every year, the film awards season features the usual sprinkling of British actors up for gongs against the usual army of Americans. There they all are in their finery at the Baftas, the Golden Globes and the Oscars. At the moment, it's all about Carey Mulligan, the elfin star of An Education. For a period in the mid-1990s, one of those actresses was Emily Watson.
Watson performed cinema's equivalent of climbing Everest without oxygen: she reached the pinnacle of the profession on acting talent alone. It helps that there is something subtly photogenic about her still presence on screen. But hers is not the kind of outstanding natural beauty that talks to big-shot producers. And yet for a while she was one of only two young British actresses who had genuine heavyweight status in the United States (The other was the more glamorous Kate Winslet).
She made her remarkable screen debut in Breaking the Waves (1996), Lars von Trier's grim parable about an ingénue from a remote religious Scottish community who, when her husband is paralysed on an oil rig, perpetuates their romantic life by seeking out liaisons with other men and telling him about it.
"I had absolutely no idea what was about to hit," she recalls. "It's a very, very strong thing to experience. When you've gone from being a struggling actor to an overnight sensation at Cannes, the shock is huge. Part of me loved it and part of me was very disturbed by it, because the first 28 years of my life were pretty great and suddenly everyone was telling me: 'Ah, now you mean something.' It was bizarre."
This quantum gear change notwithstanding, she was soon back at the Oscars for her performance in Hilary and Jackie as the stricken cellist Jacqueline Du Pré. Solid roles came in other British or Irish films such as The Boxer and Angela's Ashes. Even in a film top-heavy with star casting like Gosford Park, Robert Altman's anatomy of a 1930s English country house, she contrived to stand out as a deliciously world-weary chambermaid. Meanwhile, in the US she played the female lead opposite, of all people, Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, an exceptionally quirky offering from Paul Thomas Anderson (who directed Boogie Nights and Magnolia). "He wanted to make a romantic comedy but it's not in his DNA. That's one of my favourite things I've done actually."
It's been a long time since anyone went to see a film fronted by Emily Watson. Indeed, barely a film with her name in it has registered in recent years. There's a simple reason for that. Six years ago, she withdrew from the rigours of perpetual filming to start a family. She and her husband Jack Waters, whom she met when they were both at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, had a daughter called Juliet in 2005, followed by their son Dylan three years later. She is now 44.
"It's one of the great blessings of the job that it's part-time. And when I work it's very intense and it's logistically incredibly difficult with the kids but after a couple of months I can go home."
But motherhood only partly explains her leave of absence from her regular niche above the title. A few years ago she was cast in what sounds like the ideal role for her. Within the Whirlwind was based a true story that took place in the former Soviet Union in the 1930s when the purges found all manner of innocent victims sent to the gulags, among them the author and poet Yevgenia Ginsberg. "She discovered that she could remember hundreds of poems, and it kept her alive. And then in the camp she met a German doctor and fell in love and had a family and they survived. It's incredibly redemptive."
Unfortunately, it was put out just as the money markets crashed. No distributor bought it. It illustrates the precarious vagaries of film. Luck, having favoured Watson with Breaking the Waves, deserted her. "When they cut on the last day you have to walk away and go: 'I have no idea what's going to happen and it's not in my hands.' At the same time you never quite think that's going to happen."
This year things are changing. For a start, she has a significant role in a film version of War Horse. The film, due for release soon, is based on the children's novel by Michael Morpurgo about the horses that were used by both cavalry and artillery on the front line in the First World War. Adapted for the National Theatre in London with thrilling life-sized puppets, and currently reducing audiences to tears in New York, the story is now being given the epic Spielberg treatment.
Playing the mother of the Flanders-bound hero, Watson shot her scenes on Dartmoor in the wilds of south-west England. "I haven't worked with many real Hollywood mainstreamers like that. And I felt very privileged. You have to keep pinching yourself: that is actually Steven Spielberg. I found him to be very passionate about actors. He would come in in the morning and go: 'Oh my God, I've been awake all night worrying about this shot.' He was like a young man."
She has also played the lead in a more modestly proportioned film called Oranges and Sunshine. Directed by Jim Loach (son of Ken), the title refers with bitter irony to the better life promised to the thousands of British children forcibly shipped to Australia (and other parts of the Commonwealth) from the 1950s onwards, where some suffered horrific abuses. Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, the Nottingham social worker who happened, in the 1980s, to uncover a history of government-backed abuse and who has devoted her life to helping now grown-up children retrieve their confiscated identities.
"She is a quite extraordinary person. I'd not heard anything about it till I read the script and couldn't quite believe it was true. Totally mind-boggling. I had just had Dylan - he was about six weeks old. It was just one of those things where you go: 'Yep, I'd really like to be part of this.' The first thing I said to Jim was: 'In a way it's not really her story. She's a conduit.'" During filming in Australia the Australian government formerly apologised.
Watson chose not to meet her subject. "I don't know if that was the right decision at all. But subsequently a lot of people have said: 'Oh my God, you're channelling her, you're so like her.' Her characteristics are very clear from her story. She's also quite a reserved Englishwoman in a very forthright kind of way and I guess we share a bit of territory: middle-class white Englishwomen."
She did, however, meet the woman she plays in a UK television drama that was shown this autumn called Appropriate Adult. Janet Leach, a middle-aged woman from Gloucestershire, was the legally required witness in the interview room when the serial killer Fred West (played by Dominic West) confessed all to the police. Much as he had with his victims, West contrived to turn her into a prop for his own needs.
"A lot of it is based on the actual transcripts of the interviews which are extraordinary. It is about how she kind of survives it, just. She is very crucial in that story but also vulnerable and not equipped to deal with it. She is quite an ordinary person who gets completely taken in. But without her we might not ever know a lot of what happened."
So what's it like to meet Watson? The first impression is that she is tall - 5ft 8in, she says, augmented by boots. The second is her voice: it's quite high-pitched and, given that she has spent so much of her career donning accents - Scottish, Irish, American, etc - slightly unfamiliar. But most striking are of course the iridescent blue eyes. "They're an accident," she says. A very useful one though. "Very early on somebody said to me: 'You think with your eyes.' It's just a thing of your physiognomy: when you have a thought it's there. I can't explain it."
Watson and her sister grew up in west London, without a television. "It's probably made me a better actor. I read a lot of books and learnt at an early age to construct imaginary scenarios." She became an actress at 25, after reading English at Bristol University and going to drama college. When Helena Bonham Carter turned down Breaking the Waves, Watson's life changed.
"I didn't really know what acting was. I was quite good at being somewhere down the corridor from it, in the next room. But I was very lucky because I went off and did this film where something just happened to me. It felt like the camera was alive and looking inside you. Some situations in life you can't compromise and I just had to go for it. Not in a nasty way, but my naivety was something that he [von Trier] completely capitalised on."
In the 16 years since, Watson has never quite been seen as a romantic lead and she has scrupulously avoided playing the star. Having not had that conventional career trajectory, the idea (or the hope) is that she won't have the conventional burnout most female film leads suffer. There is a kind of knowingness about her, and it is surfacing in the more matronly roles that she is now naturally inheriting.
"If your aims are to be on the cover of magazines," she says, "and be the thinnest person in the world and to hang out with movie stars then you're in trouble probably. I'd be less than honest if I didn't say I'm as vain as the next man. But I don't want to be the thinnest person in the world."
War Horse is due for release in the UAE on December 29.
The Watson file
BORN January 14, 1967
EDUCATION St James School, West London; Bristol University, Drama Studio London
FAMILY Father an architect, mother an English teacher. Married to Jack Waters, whom she met at the RSC. Two children, Juliet and Dylan
BIGGEST BREAK Lars von Trier casting her in Breaking the Waves
BIGGEST REGRET Non-release of Within the Whirlwind