The sophomore writing and directing effort from Craig Roberts sets up quite the challenge for itself. Simply making a movie about mental illness brings with it a number of thorny obstacles to maneuver. Turning it into an eccentric black comedy about depression and schizophrenia adds even more mines to the proverbial minefield. Yet that’s what we get with “Eternal Beauty”.
This strangely brewed concoction of off-kilter humor and personal drama builds itself on a relatively simple premise. It’s about a woman named Jane (an intensely committed Sally Hawkins) with a deeply troubled past living day-to-day with schizophrenia. The catch is Roberts looks at everything through Jane’s eyes which opens the doors to a much more visual form of storytelling.
Roberts unpacks Jane’s past through a series of flashbacks that play mostly like brief reflections. We see glimpses of young Jane (played by Morfydd Clark), one of three sisters living under the iron fist of their domineering mother (Penelope Wilton). We see the happiest moment of her life instantly shattered when she is stood up on her wedding day. We see her fall into depression before being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Flashes to stays in mental institutions add to the heartbreak.
Now Jane lives alone in a low-income apartment managing her illness with pills prescribed by her doctor who constantly scolds her for saying she’s “fine“. He wants to hear “better” from his patient as if uttering the words would somehow validate hit treatments. Yet despite the physical, economical and psychological hurdles, Hawkins brings out Jane’s warmth and resilience. You can’t help but root for her. By being in her head we aren’t always sure of what we’re seeing or hearing. It becomes even more challenging once Jane quits taking her meds.
Perhaps the most vivid display of Jane’s emotions and psyche comes in the film’s use of color. Take Jane and her sisters who are represented by colors – Alice (Alice Lowe) in red, Nicola (Billie Piper) in green￼, and young Jane in blue. But after her heartbreak at the altar, Jane lost her hue. Now her apartment, her hair, her frumpy wardrobe – it’s all bland and colorless. But a chance meeting with an old acquaintance (David Thewlis) in a waiting room livens things up.
So where is the comedy you ask? Most of the above story beats have scenes of straight-faced and at times almost wacky humor. To be fair several are quite funny. But they do make for this odd tonal mish-mash that’s understandable coming from Jane’s perspective but a bit jarring when it comes to movie watching. It also gets a little bogged down narratively when trying to visualize Jane’s headspace. It snaps out of it with a moving third act where some pent-up family drama finally comes to a head. And it finishes with a final shot that injects the entire story with some welcomed hope.
“Eternal Beauty” is an odd and audacious package built on the back of yet another terrific Sally Hawkins performance. Even when the movie loses its way a bit she maintains a strong and emotionally honest character presence. It walks that tightrope of empathy and real-life experience, never exploiting mental illness or taking it lightly. Still it wasn’t an easy movie for me to connect with. That is until the final 15 minutes or so where the movie’s payoff makes the entire 95 minutes worthwhile. “Eternal Beauty” is now available on VOD.
VERDICT – 3 STARS