Joanna Hogg continues her autobiographical-film journey with her take on ’40s psychological mystery (think Rebecca, with more hot water bottles). The Eternal Daughter is a tale of grief that’s slight but provides double Tilda Swinton.
Following on from The Souvenir Part II, the film sees the now-elderly Rosalind (Swinton) being whisked away to a manor-house hotel for some R & R by her “fusspot” filmmaker daughter (and Hogg avatar) Julie (Swinton, taking on the role played by real-life daughter Honor Swinton Byrne in the Souvenir movies).
The hotel is one any staycationing Brit might recognise: a fusty pile run by one unhelpful receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies, nailing passive-aggressiveness) where everything creaks in the night and there’s only four unimaginative choices at dinner. As fog curls around the grounds and windows shimmer with possible spectres, Julie attempts to write a screenplay about her mother, trying to tease information out of a stiff-upper-lip woman who clearly hides fissures of emotional pain.
That explorative screenplay is the one we’re watching play out in front of us, which may feel self-indulgently meta from the off for some viewers. But get past the conceit and Hogg’s trademark celebration of the mundanity of human interaction is a tiny treasure to behold – much like the pillbox Rosalind keeps her “little helper” tablets in.
The precision of Hogg’s script and Swinton’s cadence captures recognisable conversations between parents and their children, as mother and daughter discuss the merits of soup over beetroot salad, where to find a kettle and whether to go to lunch with a cousin. On the surface such exchanges are banal, yet loaded with meaning and intention. Then, as the family dog (Swinton’s own pet, Louis) gets antsy, mysterious crashes are heard in the night and the soundtrack signals disquiet, The Eternal Daughter leans into the ghost-story genre, ultimately yielding a haunting quality of a different kind.
Over the few nights the women stay in the hotel little actually happens, aside from nocturnal forays for hot water or a mildly anxious search for a dog. But the mother/daughter relationship shifts to deliver a payoff that plays like Hogg’s version of an Inside Number 9 episode. Add to that an exploration of the role of exploitation in creating art from lived experience and this (will’o-the-)wisp of a film is a beauty depending on the eye of the beholder; frustratingly slender yet with moments of profundity.