mon 04/03/2024

The Eternal Daughter review - tricksy ghost story with a poignant emotional core | reviews, news & interviews

The Eternal Daughter review - tricksy ghost story with a poignant emotional core

The Eternal Daughter review - tricksy ghost story with a poignant emotional core

Tilda Swinton (and her dog) excel in Joanna Hogg's latest

Double trouble: Tilda Swinton as Julie Harte Courtesy of A24

Joanna Hogg has made a film that resolves itself backwards: what happens in the final reel recasts what you have just seen completely. It’s something of a departure from her previous films in style, but equally probing and moving.

The Eternal Daughter is the third Hogg film to feature a writer-director called Julie Harte, the lead character in The Souvenir I and II. Hogg explained at a recent Barbican Q&A that she had landed on making a film about her relationship with her mother back in 2008, after finishing her first feature film, Unrelated. But the outline she’d written for it remained in a desk drawer until after the first lockdown, when she decided to repurpose it as part three of a Souvenir trilogy. 

Julie is now several decades older and played by Tilda Swinton, the mother of the original actor playing her; Swinton appeared as Julie’s mother, Rosalind, in the two earlier films, as she also does here (Swinton as Rosalind pictured below). But this double helping of Tilda Swinton brought Hogg a string of technical challenges. How to feature both characters in the same shot, without using a split screen or body double? Hogg also likes to let her cast improvise until she is happy with the outcome, which meant she had to help prep scenes herself; and her usual method of shooting in script order could only be retained by accepting long pauses while Swinton went through makeup and costuming to switch roles. 

One split screen shot has ended up in the final cut, but for much of the time Swinton is alone in the frame, barring short appearances by a couple of minor characters — and a scene-stealing turn from her spaniel Louis, ably playing her mother’s dog. The material could have been left static, if not thin, by this approach, but Hogg has used the two women’s literal separateness from each other to serve her probing of the gap between them. Clever sound design with overlapping lines of dialogue makes scenes seem populated by both characters, while their solo lines to camera give the dialogue a confessional feel and a directness, as if the viewer is the person being addressed.

Swinton is superb at embodying these two very different women. Julie feels unworthy of her mother and spends half her time apologising to her and worrying about whether she is happy. She bites the varnish off her nails and jumps at every sound. In an aside to the dog, we see that Rosalind regards Julie’s heightened concern for her as “fussing”. Rosalind is the epitome of the fragrant Englishwoman, undoubtedly a beauty in her youth, now lightly permed and lined, delicate in her movements (such as her elegant way of picking up a small sleeping pill with a wetted finger from a little china box), yet a touch steely too.

The two women have come to an isolated Welsh hotel that was formerly the home of Rosalind’s aunt. She had spent a lot of time there in her childhood, and Julie hopes the house will arouse memories in her that she can build into a film, recording her, sometimes surreptitiously, on her phone when she starts revealing how the house is affecting her. 

Tilda Swinton as Rosalind Harte in The Eternal DaughterTheir dining-room conversations are regularly interrupted by a graceless young receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies), whose appearances increasingly become a cue for humour, but also puzzlement: why is she so rude to paying guests? Is her moodiness connected in some way to her fractious relationship with the driver of the small car that comes each night to pick her up? Are there any other guests?

This scenario would make a decent psychological study of the kind Hogg usually makes, all prickly relationships and social mis-steps, but it is not the film she has made. Which is a ghost story, of the kind we see Julie reading, Kipling’s “They”. Hogg gingers up the mix from the first seconds, where an eerie flute solo plays over the credits. We then watch a taxi driving through foggy woods towards a building Norman Bates would have felt at home in had he inherited a country-house hotel.

The flute music recurs regularly, accompanied by the sombre strings of Bartok’s Andante Tranquilloramping up the spooky atmosphere, as does the persistent fog. Bells toll, foxes bark, shadows flit across the hotel’s warren of corridors. You sense Hogg is ladling on the gothic touches with glee, as if to say: "You want a ghost story? Okay, here are all its standard trappings. Now see what I can do with them."

The rising tension seems ripe for delivering revelations and strange events. Julie’s mother talks of being frightened of the fireplace in the drawing room and claims they are staying in the exact same bedroom she used to sleep in. Other, sadder memories start to intrude. But whereas Rosalind claims to have learnt to “roll with the punches” in life, as has kindly night porter Bill (Joseph Mydell), grieving for his late wife, Julie is a mess: kept awake by elusive banging sounds and distant voices, unable to work. When she takes Louis for his night-time walks, she looks anxiously at the ground floor windows. Is there a ghostly presence there, and what does it want?

Tilda Swinton delivers two impeccable portraits, giving Julie a melancholic, careworn quality, driven by both love and regret; a woman who’s bogged down in trying to stage-manage every detail of her life, as she does her films. Rosalind is poised by comparison, repressed even, but poignantly sensing her encroaching frailty. Somehow Swinton engrosses us equally in the two characters and the twists of the emotional process they are playing out. The denouement is not wildly surprising, perhaps, but it’s clever and satisfying and very affecting. Sadly, Hogg's own mother died during the editing process and never saw the finished version.

Bells toll, foxes bark, shadows flit. You sense Hogg is ladling on the gothic touches with glee

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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