Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter is a ghost story wherein the scares mostly come from the questions it asks, anchored by an affective Tilda Swinton in dual roles.
Tilda Swinton cuts quite the figure. Statuesque with beguiling features, it’s almost as though she’s made to simultaneously enthral and unnerve, and feels like the perfect fit for a ghost story. While not necessarily a traditional one, Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter offers a psychological mystery under the trappings of a ghoulish tale, and serves up a double helping of Tilda alongside an intriguing and poignant – if a tiny bit predictable – story of familial relationships and grief. It acts as an exploration of how the relationships we have with our parents can colour and fill the world around us, in ways that might scare and challenge us.
Filmmaker Julie (Tilda Swinton) is writing a semi-autobiographical film about a relationship between a mother and daughter, and has retreated to a remote hotel in the British countryside to work on it and simultaneously reconnect with her own mum Rosalind (Tilda Swinton), amidst her ailing health, their lingering grief and Julie’s slowly festering guilt. The hotel is Rosalind’s childhood home renovated, and the pair spend their evenings in the deserted dining room reminiscing over the good and not-so-good stories of a childhood spent in the manor house, as well as untangling the mysteries of the seemingly vacant hotel and the complexities of the bond between mother and daughter.
The Eternal Daughter is slow and creeping, eerie in a manner that doesn’t so much scare as it does disconcert. Hogg very quickly establishes the film’s tone, ramping up the excellent sound design – from Jovan Ajder – to create an atmosphere that feels oppressive and unsettling, in the way that creepy old houses tend to be. Everything is sharp and just slightly dissonant sounding, which gives the damp chill of misty grounds and the suspense of the lurking shadows and darkened windows even more of an edge. Carly-Sophia Davies’ rude receptionist come waitress adds to that feeling that there’s really no-one else here but them, offering up uncomfortable chuckles that feel a bit off, and the haunting flute music from Joseph Mydell’s Bill, the hotel’s caretaker,drifts through the empty corridors and adds more mystery. A flaw might be that the narrative itself is a little bit predictable, but it is earnest in its message and impressively crafted, a pseudo horror much more than the haunted house tale it appears on the surface.
And it is a ‘pseudo’ horror because that, ultimately, isn’t the focus. Hogg isn’t necessarily out to frighten with The Eternal Daughter, but rather ask the question of how well we really know or understand our parents, how much of their lives they keep from us. It also ponders whether becoming a parent will strengthen and deepen a bond, or simply start the cycle all over again. In essence, we can become parents and understand the role of our parents, but it might not make us know them any better.
It’s a really well-crafted film from Hogg, anchored by an affecting (double) performance from Swinton. Julie’s burgeoning sadness over learning of her mother’s strugglesand Rosalind’s ambivalence to Julie’s strong reaction shows the need the pair had for this trip. Julie’s need to figure out why the unoccupied room upstairs keeps her awake at nightand Rosalind aging and ailing before our very eyes forms the mystery of the film. Hogg very deliberately keeps them from appearing in the same shot for the majority of the run time,which symbolises that barrier between them and the lack of true understanding despite an obvious affection.
The Eternal Daughter is a ghost story about the ghosts we carry around with us. The guilt and shame and sadness we feel about our parents, about ourselves, and the manner in which it shapes, colours and fills the world around us. The scares come primarily in the staging and sound, but also in the questions it forces us to ponder. It’s a film that aims to unnerve and move its audience, and Hogg pretty much succeeds in both.
The Eternal Daughter is now available to watch on digital and on demand in the US and various countries. In the UK. the film will be released in cinemas on 24 November 2023, and on the BFI Player on 22 January 2024.