Ghost Story Makes Every Choice Meaningful

Jan 30, 2023

For anyone who has already seen the movie, watching The Eternal Daughter trailer is an amusing experience, but prospective viewers shouldn’t be fooled — this isn’t a horror movie. It is a ghost story, but more in the literary sense. Filmmaker Joanna Hogg continues the work of mining her own life that she did with her Souvenir movies, with Tilda Swinton taking over as Hogg’s surrogate, Julie, while also continuing to play Rosalind, Julie’s mother. There might be a compelling relationship between this film and the director’s previous two, but as this reviewer can attest (having seen only the first part of Hogg’s diptych), coming in with that framework is far from necessary. There is a richness to The Eternal Daughter that is all its own. It is a small film, contained in scope and measured in pace, that uses the conceit of haunting to connect with much bigger feelings and ideas. A patient, attentive viewer will find the sum of its carefully placed parts leaves them with more to contemplate than they might have expected.

In an eerie opening that immediately constructs the story’s gothic packaging, Julie and Rosalind arrive at their hotel late on a foggy night. The Welsh country manor is beautiful but feels supremely isolated, as if on an island away from the rest of the world, and it looms in the way of the best haunted houses. But the estate seems to Julie the perfect place for a getaway that doubles as birthday present and research trip; she has determined for her mother to be the subject of her next film, and Rosalind spent a lot of time here in her youth, when it belonged to her aunt. But from the moment Julie gets off on the wrong foot with the young, snippy receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies), things seem off. Strange noises keep her up at night (though Rosalind, who takes a pill before bed, sleeps soundly), and she finds both this creative endeavor and her mother fairly impenetrable. As she investigates the disturbances and excavates the past, however, emotions bubble to the surface that end up being much more than she bargained for.

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Tilda Swinton in The Eternal Daughter

It is difficult to say more about the story without giving too much away, as discovering what there is to discover about The Eternal Daughter is an important part of the experience. The ostensibly simple film proves more slippery than it seemed at first glance, but at 96 minutes and featuring a very small range of characters, it is quite lean. The overall effect is really the product of a handful of artistic choices, and they work best when the audience truly takes them in and considers what they might mean. The ghost story trappings, for instance, invite questions of what a ghost is, and what it can mean to be haunted. Julie and Rosalind are in a place that holds much significance for the latter, triggering in her a constant stream of reminiscences, but it is the former whose experience there borders on the supernatural. Why could that be? Rosalind speaks of the memories she made in the manor being “alive” here – could those same memories, then, be “dead” for Julie? Is trying to reach out and touch the experiences of another, whether as daughter to mother or artist to subject, like piercing the veil?

Then there is the most glaring of The Eternal Daughter’s choices — Swinton’s dual role, which sees her predominantly acting against herself. On the one hand, it is a source of great joy just to watch such a talented performer tackle this challenge and make it look like the most natural casting decision in the world. Both characters are so fully physicalized, with movements and mannerisms that express not only age but degree of emotional repression, that it actually becomes hard to remember they were never in the same room together. But, beyond this, Hogg’s choice here is incredibly significant. Rosalind and Julie are not just two separate people, but mother and daughter, a relationship that in real life can feature uncanny resemblance. As their physical similarity pushes them together, the audience is encouraged to focus on their differences. There are times, as during an awkward back-and-forth about a cousin’s invitation to visit, that they seem in total lockstep, but Rosalind is also closed off in a way that keeps them miles apart. She is, to an extent, unknowable to Julie, and the fact that they look so alike makes the pain Julie feels at this distance much more tangible.

Tilda Swinton in The Eternal Daughter

Crucial here, too, is the narrative’s meta nature. In The Eternal Daughter, Julie aims to make a movie about her mother, which is exactly what Hogg has done with this film. Swinton’s casting takes on new meaning in this context, and not just because it references The Souvenir and thereby brings this element to the fore. Having the same actor play both daughter/filmmaker and mother/subject, particularly with the agony Julie displays at even approaching this material, comes across as a tacit acknowledgment of the limit of Hogg’s perspective.

The best film about her mother she can make ends up being about their relationship, and so heavily refracted through her own prism that the two characters end up shadows of one another. This, perhaps, is one way to understand the title: The role of daughter, despite her efforts, cannot be sublimated into the role of filmmaker. But there are other ways to read it, stemming from other facets of the movie not expounded on here, that are best for viewers to decipher themselves. For those inclined, the process of teasing them out is truly rewarding.

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The Eternal Daughter released in theaters and on demand Friday, December 2. The film is 96 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some drug material.

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