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Monday, September 12, 2022

‘The Eternal Daughter’ TIFF Review – A Gothic Family Drama That Struggles to be Memorable

Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter begins like so many Gothic stories before it: a car driving along a foggy backwoods road en route to a nearly deserted mansion. The house in question is actually a hotel – one where Julie (Tilda Swinton) and her mother (also Swinton) will be staying for a few days to celebrate the latter’s birthday. The vibe, however, is moody: Julie is told by their cab driver that an old woman’s ghostly face has been seen in the window and when they arrive, the place looks dark and shuttered.

At various points throughout the film, it’s clear that something is amiss. Julie can’t sleep because of a recurring banging sound, there appear to be no other guests, and there’s no wifi signal. Even Julie’s calls to her (never seen) husband drop regularly, suggesting she and mother are almost completely cut off from the outside world.

There are two staff on site: a passive-aggressive front desk clerk (Carly-Sophia Davies) and Bill (Joseph Mydell) the black groundskeeper who only seems to appear at night. The former is stand-offish and antagonistic: there’s a great deal of awkward and uncomfortable humor in her interactions with Julie over innocuous items like which room is available and the acquisition of an electric kettle. The latter is kind and warm: he helps Julie looks for her mother’s dog Louie when it goes missing in the middle of the night and listens to her when she discusses her struggle to connect emotionally with her mother.

But for the vast majority of the runtime, this is exclusively Swinton’s film. Not only does the talented actress play both leads, but she’s also frequently forced to act by herself. This is because Hogg makes the specific decision to avoid establishing shots of the two women in the same frame, relying almost exclusively on two-shots that feature one character talking, then cutting to the other for their response or reaction.

The result is purposeful because it reinforces the space and the divide between the two women. Julie, a filmmaker preparing to make a film about her mum, is desperate to learn more about her life, but there’s clearly a great deal she doesn’t know. Julie’s mother is fond of reminiscing about her experiences around the hotel, where she stayed at the end of the second world war, but in her desire to keep things light, however, the older woman tends to change the subject rather than talk openly about her troubled past. This vexes Julie, who begins secretly recording her mother, although it clearly pains her because she is extremely empathetic about her mother’s health and mood.

The other effect of Hogg’s shooting style is that we are keenly aware and repeatedly reminded that Swinton is playing both roles, sometimes to the point of distraction. While it makes sense thematically – after all, The Eternal Daughter is a drama with minor genre influences (so no jump scares or bombastic set pieces) – the reliance on two-shots slows the film’s pacing down to glacial levels. When the vast majority of the film is composed of conversation between two characters, the monotonous visual repetition eventually starts to feel static and sluggish.

Exacerbating this feeling is the film’s focus on the mundane daily routines of their stay, which is filled with dog walking, writing or reading, dinner and then bed.  Again, this is purposefully done: the days and nights blend together, so that time feels liminal and fluid. How long has it been since they arrived? When is mom’s birthday? Has Julie slept recently?

When every day is the same, the foggy weather outside never changes, and the hotel corridors all look the same, the effect is ghostly and ethereal. Alas, it also feels like one long, repetitive loop…which is frustrating when the events of said loop are so low-key.

While Swinton does a reasonable job with the material, the stilted nature of the mother/daughter relationship doesn’t give her much to do. The Eternal Daughter hints at a suspenseful or surprising revelation in its conclusion, but the truth is predictable and heavily foreshadowed throughout.

Perhaps that’s the point? Maybe Hogg is simply using the film’s genre elements, which instantly evoke not just Gothic Horror, but specifically The Others, as a distraction. There’s an obvious interest in exploring strained familial relations, the power of space to activate memories and the difficulties of being an adult caregiver to a parent. But despite the film’s gentle consideration of these themes, there’s simply not much there.

The film looks good and Tilda is fine, but The Eternal Daughter never feels like more than slight diversion. And that’s not enough to be memorable.

The post ‘The Eternal Daughter’ TIFF Review – A Gothic Family Drama That Struggles to be Memorable appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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