by Christine Westwood

Spending 99 minutes trapped in a seedy New York apartment with Naomi Watts in The Wolf Hour isn’t the most pleasant cinema experience, but as a tense study of loneliness and dislocation, Watts’ portrayal of a disaffected author and ex-activist is one of her best.

Set during the 1977 blackout riots in New York, Watts is June Leigh, a cultural icon from the 1960s who has fallen from public favour and, living in squalor in her deceased grandmother’s apartment, is trapped in a personal hell while a desperate social crisis escalates on the streets below. Her paranoia and depression are exacerbated by booze, cigarettes and the junk that piles up around her.

Watts also executive produced, demonstrating her commitment to the grueling role.

© 2019 Sundance Institute | photo by Azikiwe Aboagye

Speaking to the Sundance audience at the post premier screening, she said, “on reading the script I thought, ‘wow, this is a character exploration of someone deep in the depths of loneliness, self-loathing and cut off from the rest of the world and how that has become her comfort zone. She has no idea how to find a way out of it, so she just medicates’.

“Anyone can relate to a certain depression and need to isolate but this was on a whole other level. Anyone who has a creative mind can imagine what it is when you feel you’ve achieved something and then there’s that period of loss of relevance. June needs people and food and money or protection. She calls these people into her world [but] then it’s, ‘who do I trust when I don’t trust myself?’ I loved the examination of that level of craziness. It’s a fun character for an actor to play and ultimately I felt it took tapping into someone else to come through.”

Supported by the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program, The Wolf Hour was written and directed by Alistair Banks Griffin whose previous feature Two Gates of Sleep was nominated at Cannes in 2010. The Wolf Hour was, in part, a creative bid to wrestle with a dark period in Griffin’s own life. Before the screening he told FilmInk, “After 2010, I had a couple of projects that weren’t realised, and I found it an incredibly devastating experience to not have them come to life even though they got close. It really caused a lot of anxiety and struggle about what to do next as a second film when your first one had made a splash. It put me in a dark place. This film represents that moment in my life. It’s not autobiographical but it sparked that idea.”

Director Alistair Banks Griffin introduces the World Premiere of The Wolf Hour. © 2019 Sundance Institute | photo by Azikiwe Aboagye

Griffin expanded on this notion when he took a QA from the festival audience. “I was really interested in exploring a character that was going through an existential crisis in a physical and emotional way and watching the city go through this at the same time through this very narrow lens of the window and the characters coming in and out. That was my way of making this very impressionistic version of my feelings around America and New York City.

“I used that time period as it was a good remove for me. And there’s an interesting link between current events and what was going on in that period plus Nixon and the post-Europe economic collapse and blackout riots in 1977. There was a general malaise at that time, and the more I was writing, that connection was building.

“At the same time, I found myself cutting off and isolating myself, and I found that reaction interesting. It was a great collaboration with Naomi as we went through all these emotions.”

June’s claustrophobic world is punctured at intervals by characters including ex-best friend Margot who tries to intervene and rescue. Played by Jennifer Ehle, Margot is a strong, grounding presence against June’s flakiness.

“It was wonderful to work with Naomi on such great, complex scenes,” Ehle told FilmInk. “You can really feel there’s a shift towards more female presence in film generally, and especially at a festival like this one.”

Actors Jeremy Bobb, Jennifer Ehle, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts and director Alistair Banks Griffin. © 2019 Sundance Institute | photo by Nick Sammons

The other key character who enters June’s life and who she is forced to trust is a young messenger boy called Freddie, played by Kelvin Harrison Jnr. By coincidence, Harrison also appears opposite Watts in another festival film, Luce.

“Naomi did this film right after Luce and she said ‘there’s a great role for you. It’s not as big as this one but I think you might like it’. I read the script and it was a world that was fascinating to me and seeing the relationship between my character and Naomi’s character. He’s this kid who doesn’t necessarily have all the privilege she’s had and it’s an odd pairing but he’s learning to be more sympathetic while she’s learning to be less of a victim.”

“We did literally come from that other set,” Watts says to Harrison. “We came from such different characters so at first it was scary seeing you but then your walk, your voice, everything was so majorly transformed it was really wonderful. When you’re doing this character alone on set a lot of the time you worry, is there repetition? But everybody brought so much, each character represented such different things to June, the friendship, the loneliness, the need for protection.”

In the production notes, HanWay Films managing director Gabrielle Stewart said, ‘The Wolf Hour delivers Hitchcockian tension in a densely layered world with a role that will exploit every fibre of Academy Award nominee Naomi Watts’ emotional range as an actor’.

It’s a long way from early roles in Home and Away and Brides of Christ via outstanding performances in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks and Oscar nominated for Alejandro Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. With five projects in pre-production and her intense disciplined work in The Wolf Hour, Watts is still hitting her stride.


Leave a Reply