After the success of her paired portrait-of-the-artist features The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II, British writer-director Joanna Hogg takes a stylistic swerve with The Eternal Daughter, a melancholy winter’s tale with horror elements.
It’s effectively a third chapter in the Souvenir story, one that jumps into the present day after the 1980s setting of Part II. This time, Tilda Swinton takes over the role of Hogg’s fictional avatar Julie (originally played by Swinton’s daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne) and also reprises the role of Julie’s contained, genteel mother Rosalind, affording the actor a chance to indulge her enthusiasm for complex hair and make-up disguises. The two women travel to a remote hotel in Wales for a sentimental journey, one that stirs up both happy and unhappy memories. In the end, it plays a little too often like an academic pastiche of horror tropes even though its emotional core rings with resonance.
The Eternal Daughter
The Bottom Line
Didn’t need all the horror do-dads.
However, while the characters may be familiar, the style marks a notable shift of artistic direction for Hogg, which her niche but rabidly enthusiastic fanbase may not entirely like. Just as the Souvenir films departed from the deliberately static, austere vibe of her early work (Unrelated, Archipelago, Exhibition), here Hogg tinkers further with all kinds of new-fangled filmmaking gizmos. For example, throughout Daughter there’s persistent use of non-source music, (a theme from Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta). Elsewhere we get classic horror movie elements like creaking floorboards, rusty door hinges, and faces just glimpsed in windows.
A final twist ties the plot up in a dainty, sad little parcel. The intended touchstones are mentioned in the press notes and quite palpable onscreen: British ghost story writer M.R. James; Rudyard Kipling’s short story They (which Julie is seen reading in the film); and the 1961 Henry James film adaptation of Turn of the Screw, known as The Innocents. But there’s a fine line between knowing if sincere homage and pastiche, and too often Hogg’s awkward wrangling of her genre elements nudges this in the direction of an episode of British-made schlocky-spooky 70s anthology series Journey to the Unknown.
Okay, it’s not like the director has sold out and is planning to direct the next Child’s Play movie. This is still very much a Joanna Hogg film, another one of her subtle, painterly explorations of family dynamics (there are strong echoes of Archipelago in the parent-and-child-on-holiday setup), seen unabashedly through the lens of upper-middle-class English identity. As ever, Hogg presents an insider’s view of this milieu, which she sometimes gently mocks but also respects. There is an absolutely priceless moment when Julie and Rosalind have dinner together and Rosalind, always so proper in sturdy skirts and helmet of set hair, frets nervously that there’s no fish knife on the table to use on her dish of battered cod. Nevermind, she decides, and tucks in with the regular knife she’s been supplied with, making do in much the same way her generation has done for years.
Indeed, Rosalind may be a scion of the haute bourgeoisie, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been pain and suffering in her life. The very reason she and Julie have come to this hotel is because Rosalind stayed here as a child during WWII when it was owned by an aunt of hers, sheltering from Blitz but still aware that other family members were lost. At one point, she recalls a miscarriage that started while she was visiting the house at a later date, and Julie wells up with empathic tears. Underneath all the film’s creepy tchotchkes, this is at heart a domestic study of a mother and daughter struggling to understand, support and love each other even though they’re quite different characters with very different lives.
Although at first some viewers may need to stifle an internal grown of irritation to see the film is going to feature Swinton showing off by dowdying down her appearance again (thanks to fine work from designer Siobhan Harper-Ryan), over the long haul it emerges as a genuinely affecting dual performance. The use of mirrors in the décor and the echoing of the musical soundtrack find a correlative in this mirrored performance. Swinton will use a gesture or an expression in either Julie or Rosalind and then repeat it later for the other character with just the faintest whiff of difference to the arch of the eyebrow, the moue of the mouth. It’s a turn that deserves consideration and respect.
Kudos are also due to casting director Olivia Scott-Webb and/or whoever else is responsible for casting Carly-Sophia Davies as the hotel’s borderline rude receptionist/waitress, barely capable of disguising her irritation with Julie as she clatters to and fro in painful-looking high heels. Joseph Mydell brings warmth and kindness to his turn as another hotel employee, but hearts will melt over the film’s most important supporting actor: Louis, Rosalind’s faithful spaniel, a scene-stealing canine who is best in show.