Tilda Swinton captivates in “The Eternal Daughter”, the latest from distributor A24 that for some reason seems to have fallen through the cracks this awards season. Sadly the film hasn’t received much of a push which is unfortunate considering it’s one of A24’s best films of 2022. Written and directed by Joanna Hogg, this poignant and haunting mother/daughter elegy begs to be contemplated as it tinkers with genre and subverts our expectations, all as Hogg pulls from some deeply personal places for inspiration.
“The Eternal Daughter” was shot during the COVID-19 lockdown which makes sense considering the mostly single location and minuscule cast. But whatever constraints were in place never make it onto the screen. That’s because Hogg’s keen control of her audience, both through her well managed direction and eloquently crafted script, never allows us time to ponder any of its limitations. Instead she keeps us firmly focused on her two main characters, Julie (Swinton) and her mother Rosalind (also Swinton).
The movie begins with a chatty cabbie driving Julie and Rosalind across the foggy countryside, eventually arriving at Moel Faman Hall, a remote hotel set in an old rural manor. It’s somewhat of a mother and daughter getaway to celebrate Rosalind’s birthday but with some special meaning. We learn that Moel Faman Hall was where Rosalind grew up as a child, well before it was turned into a rustic bed-and-breakfast.
Upon arriving Julie goes to check in and is greeted by the seemingly empty hotel’s snooty and disinterested receptionist (a really good Carly-Sophia Davies) who takes them to their room. It’s not the room they reserved, but the receptionist doesn’t seem to care. Instead she hops in the car with her boyfriend and leaves for the evening. Quite the opposite is Bill (Joseph Mydell), the kindly nighttime concierge who pops up later and is always willing to lend a hand. He’s a tender soul with his own personal attachment to the hotel.
So Julie and Rosalind settle in for the evening. As they do, Hogg treats us to one of my favorite things about her film – the small intimate exchanges between mother and daughter, so natural and organic that they immediately triggered sweet memories of my own mother and grandmother and the relationship they shared. These tender moments are scattered all throughout the movie, and they’re aided by Swinton’s graceful dual-role performance which evolves into something even more impressive over time. It’s great work from Swinton who’s no stranger to handling this type of challenge.
For Julie, what follows are several restless nights where she constantly hears unexplained noises from the vacant floors above and even sees a ghostly old lady peering out the windows. Hogg plays around with our perceptions, not just of what we see on screen but also in how we view her movie as a whole. Is it a horror movie? The drafty creaky interiors, the thick evening fog that engulfs the manor, even the eerie wailing music that feels plucked right out of an early “X-Files” episode make you wonder. But as Hogg patiently reveals her real interests, we begin to get a better grasp of what’s really going on. It just takes cracking her code to get to the heart of the movie.
Though modestly budgeted, “The Eternal Daughter” looks amazing in large part thanks to the textured 16mm cinematography from Ed Rutherford. There’s also some crafty camera trickery, even craftier editing, and terrific makeup design. It all beautifully serves this thematically rich drama which clearly comes from a place close to Hogg’s heart. And ultimately it’s that personal touch that makes her thoughtful self-reflection resonate as intensely as it does. “The Eternal Daughter” is now showing in select theaters.