In ‘God’s Creatures,’ a Mother Chooses Her Son Over Another Woman’s Truth

Star Emily Watson and directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer discuss their movie about rape in a small Irish fishing town.

In ‘God’s Creatures,’ a Mother Chooses Her Son Over Another Woman’s Truth

For the second week in a row, a movie that follows a woman protagonist’s awakening to the pervasive misogyny of her once-cherished world will land in theaters. But unlike Don’t Worry Darling, Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s God’s Creatures is a subdued slow burn without a sci-fi angle (or drama around its production enough to outshine the movie itself). It’s set in a coastal Irish town where the local economy depends on fishing, and where those in that line of work don’t learn how to swim so as not to be responsible for saving the life of someone in danger. Shot in the small village of Teelin in the north of Ireland over a nine-week period, God’s Creatures finds Aileen O’Hara (Emily Watson) thrust into crisis when her prodigal son Brian (Normal People’s Paul Mescal) is accused of rape shortly after returning home from a long absence. Aileen rushes to her son’s defense, providing him with an alibi, only to slowly realize the implications of her complicity.

Davis said Shane Crowley’s script spoke particularly well to the moment she and Holmer received it, in the days after the 2018 Brett Kavanaugh hearings. “Sixty-five women attested to his character, his gentlemanly manner when they knew him,” she told Jezebel, in reference to a letter claiming Kavanaugh “has always treated women with decency and respect.”

“That was infuriating to us,” Davis recalled.

Watson compared the story, devised by Crowley and God’s Creatures producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, to a Greek tragedy. “It’s a very, very interesting dive into the subject of sexual assault and how the structures of a supposedly civilized and religious community can close ranks around a perpetrator and hang a victim out to dry,” she told Jezebel. Of her character, the actor said: “She’s like an animal. She’s so attached to her son, but she’s blinded by that. And when she’s asked to give an alibi, she lies like an animal.”

The victim in question is Sarah (The Nightingale’s Aisling Franciosi), a woman from Brian’s past, who works under Aileen at the factory that processes the local catch. Aileen effectively abandons Sarah in the wake of the accusation, choosing biological motherhood over the maternal relationship she has with Sarah. In focusing on the perceived duties of motherhood, she abandons responsibility to women in general, and her existential crisis grows from there.

“Our lens into this film is Aileen and her psychology, but Brian is responsible for his actions,” said Holmer. “There is no justice served. The law does not provide justice for Sarah. The courts do not provide justice. Her community accepts silence and turns their back. She is failed at every single step of the way. Aileen is one of the failures towards Sarah. We are not saying that Aileen’s failure of Sarah is any greater, it’s just our specific lens in this film.”

Holmer compared taking on this bleak subject matter to “a heavy coat to put on.” In describing the burden of heavy roles like hers in God’s Creatures, and throughout her career since her Oscar-nominated film debut in Lars von Trier’s 1996 movie Breaking the Waves, Watson said troubled characters in fucked-up situations are her “bread and butter.” She said the process of playing such characters is akin to crying: “You have a physical feeling, and when it’s over you feel different.”

“Your body records it,” she continued. “Acting is like that. Even if the emotions are not from real things, they’re still passing through you. So you have to do the things that you do in real life to let them go. It trauma therapy, you know?” And then, she said with a smile: “This all sounds like very pretentious nonsense.”


Watson also described the uniqueness of the production helmed by two women and a “gender-balanced crew.” Davis and Holmer previously collaborated on 2015’s The Fits—they both worked on the story, while Holmer directed and Davis edited.

“It was very undemonstrative, very quiet,” said Watson of their directing style. “Everything was very to the point, everything had been very deeply thought about. Every member of the crew knew that when they asked for something very specific, that it was very meaningful and everybody did it. You know, they had all these amazing, quiet Irish men eating out of their hands. It was very quiet, respectful. It was like a dance.” That’s not to say that it was easy—the unpredictable nature of the sea meant scenes shot at the oyster farm tended to by Brian and Aileen were particularly precarious. On the upside, Watson now knows how to gut a salmon.

One potential pitfall Davis and Holmer sidestepped was portraying the assault at the heart of the story. From the start they knew no such scene would be filmed. Davis explained they didn’t want God’s Creatures to take on the feel of a procedural. “We didn’t want to provide evidence for the viewer to kind of like, try and make a decision, like did he or didn’t he,” she said.

Holmer added, “For us, [Sarah’s] word is enough. It takes a while for those within the film to see it, but the point of view of the film is never questioning that. Although we don’t portray the incident on screen, there is a deep sense of that violence in the bodies and the minds of our characters. It doesn’t end just with that simple act. Sarah is going to be carrying the weight of that night with her for maybe her entire life. That ghost doesn’t go away. But Aileen has that ghost too, and it lingers.”

Though Creatures screenwriter Crowley and producer O’Reilly are Irish, Davis and Holmer are both from the U.S., which makes the lived-in nature of their film all the more impressive. “We both have roots in documentary, and so in that space, it’s about observation,” said Davis. “Through observation, you find the details and you listen to the language, you meet the people, and I think you can get somewhat of an understanding of the culture in the place, and then you do your best to reflect that on screen.”

“In order for the work to work, it has to be personal,” said Holmer. “There is cultural specificity in our film, of course, but it’s never about chasing that. It’s actually about chasing the specificity and chasing the personal. And within that, like, you create something that feels true.”

For Watson, who was born in London, God’s Creatures is not just an indictment of patriarchy, but of one particular system it supports. She cited a prayer Aileen says to herself at a climactic moment, when the choice she makes is ultimately prosocial but still, in the scheme of things, immoral. “That was a moment of surrendering to God,” Watson said. “It’s an abdication of responsibility, which is what the Catholic [church provides]. It gives you absolution. It gives you permission not to have a moral compass, really. If that’s the way you choose to, you can exist within that whole framework and not make good choices, not be a good person in any way.” And then, after a beat: “I’m sure that’s not what the church would say.”

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